Now the word is heard in context: "Old senior citizens living on one black." Yo, this guy is trying to say BLOCK.
The speakers are Chicago natives. Labov has been playing examples of Chicagoese to residents of Philadelphia and Birmingham, Ala., in a study to prove one of his pet theses: Regional dialects are not fading; they are stronger than ever. As a result, it's becoming increasingly difficult for Americans to understand each other.
So even when the full sentence about "seniors living on one black" is played, only 10 percent of Philadelphians realize the word is "block," not ''black."
Labov, a Center City resident and University of Pennsylvania professor, is one of the nation's busiest and best known experts on American accents and language patterns.
"There are fascinating but mysterious changes taking place" in regional accents, Labov says.
He's not exactly sure what's happening or why. "I just notice a great deal of change taking place. Despite the fact that we all watch the same TV, accents are getting even stronger . . . All the change is taking place in the white community. Black English is amazingly the same from city to city."
(Labov's thesis that blacks and whites are separated by language created furious controversy about six years ago.)
Philadelphians have one of the most distinctive accents in America, Labov says. While it's difficult to demonstrate on paper, there is a certain new, hard pronounciation of certain vowel sounds. "Fight" sounds more like ''fit" these days in Philadelphia.
"Down" sounds like "day-on," Labov says. "Crayon" has become ''crown." "Balance" and "bounce" have become the same word.
"Ask a Philadelphia kid to say 'New Balance sneakers' and you'll hear it," he says.
"It's a more closed-mouth pronunciation," Labov says. "It's not careless or laziness, because it's harder to say, more emphatic . . . Higher- status people and leaders have the strongest accents - teachers, office managers, block captains."
The changing and strengthening of regional accents have real implications in an age of instant, easy communications. Those who answer 800 telephone numbers or conduct telephone surveys know the challenge of trying to interpret fellow Americans.
Labov cites an example of a telephone surveyor who asked how many "pets" are in the house. Subjects often heard "pots" and thought the question was stupid.
In a taped interview, Labov asked a resident of Rochester, N.Y., where his father worked. The answer was "Kodak." But the person transcribing Labov's tape heard "coding."
Someone waiting at Chicago's O'Hare Airport told Labov he had heard this message on the public address system: "Will lucky passenger Arnold Stein report to the Eastern Airline counter?"
The second time he heard the message, it made more sense. "Will Milwaukee passenger Arnold Stein report . . .?"
Although Labov has no solutions for this confusion, few others in his field have done more to demonstrate the practical side of linguistics.
He has offered expert testimony in several important court cases, gaining nationwide attention in a 1985 California case in which he proved that a defendant accused of threatening to bomb an airliner was innocent.
The threat had been recorded, and as soon as Labov heard the tape, he knew the caller was from the Boston area. The defendant, who had already spent nine months in jail, was from Long Island, N.Y.
Labov came to court with sophisticated scientific evidence about New York and Boston vowel sounds that the judge called "fascinating and decisive evidence."
Labov has testified in court several times about confusing language used in laws or regulations.
In 1982, his testimony about the wording of a notice regarding changes in Pennsylvania welfare caused a federal judge to block implementation. Thousands of welfare recipients in danger of losing benefits got a reprieve while the notice was rewritten.
Labov's ambition is to create an American atlas of regional dialects. It would be the first.