In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Labov

  • Introduction
  • Variationist Theory
  • Sociolinguistic Methodology
  • The Role of Social Variables
  • Stylistic Variation
  • Studies of Language Change
  • Historical Linguistics
  • Regional Dialects
  • African American English
  • Creole Studies
  • Educational Linguistics
  • Perception of Speech
  • Grammatical and Semantic Studies
  • Discourse Analysis and Narrative Theory
  • Language Acquisition

Linguistics William Labov
Matthew J. Gordon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0195


William Labov (b. 1927) has been a prominent voice in American linguistics since the early 1960s. He pioneered an approach to investigating the relationship between language and society and developed a field that has come to be known as “variationist sociolinguistics.” A central doctrine of this field holds that variation is inherent to linguistic structure. The way a language is spoken (and written) differs across individuals as well as across situations encountered by the same individual. Labov argued that such differences are not only normal but also necessary to a language’s functioning. This view challenges much of the traditionally dominant thinking and practice in linguistic theory, from Ferdinand de Saussure to Noam Chomsky. Mainstream theorists do not deny the existence of variation, rather they tend to downplay its relevance and treat it as a superficial phenomenon obscuring a fundamental uniformity that characterizes language. Labov’s research demonstrates that linguistic variation is pervasive and highly structured, revealing regular patterns of co-occurrence between language forms, such as the pronunciation of a particular vowel, and social categories, such as socioeconomic classes. Such insights derive from studying language from a socially realistic perspective that takes into account how a diverse range of speakers uses the language in everyday situations. Labov has advocated a stronger empirical grounding for linguistics, questioning the validity of analyses based on the intuitions of a native speaker and stressing the value of observing naturally produced speech. His approach is distinguished from others within sociolinguistics by its reliance on quantitative methods. Often the patterns of co-variation between linguistic forms and social variables become apparent only in the light of statistical analysis. Over the course of his career, Labov has explored a wide range of linguistic phenomena within the variationist paradigm. He has examined semantic (e.g., quantifiers like each and all) and grammatical features (e.g., contraction and deletion of the copula), though the study of phonological variation has predominated in his work. In addition to exploring synchronic patterns of sociolinguistic variation, Labov has devoted enormous attention to questions of language change. Most of his research examines English, and he has been influential in the field of American dialectology, where he has helped to turn scholarly attention away from its traditional focus on the retention of regional speech patterns. He has also been a leader in the study of African American Vernacular English and has worked to counter popular misconceptions about this and other stigmatized dialects. Related to this research, he has examined how speakers of non-standard dialects acquire reading proficiency in Standard English.

General Overviews

Labov’s career in linguistics began in 1961, when he entered graduate school at Columbia University, after having worked for several years as an industrial chemist. He quickly made a name for himself as both his Masters thesis and his doctoral dissertation became landmark studies for the burgeoning field of sociolinguistics (see Labov 1963 cited under Studies of Language Change and Labov 1966 cited under the Role of Social Variables). In the five decades since, Labov has taken up a broad array of topics in his research and has established a distinctive approach under the label “variationist sociolinguistics.” This section presents overviews of Labov’s career (Biographies, Interviews, and Tributes) and the field he has shaped (Textbooks).

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