Penn linguist Labov wins Franklin Institute award

Posted: October 23, 2012

When the speech pathologist heard children in the Philadelphia classroom say what sounded like pin for the word pen, he recommended that they be treated for a hearing disability.

University of Pennsylvania researcher William Labov, who was visiting the school that day in the 1970s, knew the real reason. The children were African American, and they simply spoke a different - but equally legitimate - form of English.

For more than four decades, Labov has been challenging perceptions about the way people talk, upending long-held doctrines in the field of linguistics and taking those findings beyond academia to the real world. In honor of this work, he is one of the eight newest winners of awards given each year by the Franklin Institute in science, technology, and business.

The winners are to be announced Monday and honored at a black-tie ceremony at the science museum on April 25, following a weeklong series of public lectures and educational events. The recipients include Subra Suresh, the current director of the National Science Foundation, and entrepreneur Michael Dell, who is best known for the personal computers that bear his name but is now making a major splash in the world of philanthropy.

The others are celebrated for their innovations in such areas as how viruses can be incorporated into our DNA and the physics involved in the birth of stars.

Perhaps none other than Labov has had so great an impact with such a common piece of equipment: the tape recorder.

Shopkeepers, gang members, teenagers, the elderly - the soft-spoken 85-year-old has recorded them all, getting them to open up about their hopes and fears.

"You have to approach conversations with other people with the understanding that they have something interesting to say," said Labov, who is married to Gillian Sankoff, a fellow linguist at Penn.

Linguistics is a field that most people think they know a thing or two about. After all, everyone communicates.

But time and time again, Labov has shown conventional wisdom, and even the wisdom of his academic peers, to be wrong.

So you think regional accents are gradually being washed away by the ever-growing tide of mass media? Nope. Labov (pronounced La-BOWVE, rhyming with stove) has shown they are getting stronger.

Then there is the common notion that individual cities and even neighborhoods have their own accents and dialects. There are local variations, to be sure, but Labov and colleagues have shown that linguistic patterns are similar across large, sprawling regions - such as the one that includes Philadelphia, Wilmington, Reading, and Baltimore.

And when Labov set out for the streets of Harlem in the 1960s, the language of African Americans was thought by many academics to be a degraded form of English. (Or, in the case of the Philadelphia speech pathologist, to be the result of faulty hearing.) But Labov showed that structurally speaking, it was every bit as rigorous a form of communication as the English spoken by the snootiest grammarian.

Shana Poplack, a former student of Labov's who is now a prominent linguist at the University of Ottawa, said his work had prompted linguists to reexamine the dialects of minority populations worldwide.

"So much of what we know about linguistic structure today comes from the analysis of dialects previously considered unworthy of scientific attention," Poplack said. "This, in my mind, is entirely due to Bill Labov."

Born in Rutherford, N.J., Labov majored in English and philosophy at Harvard University. He took some chemistry as well, prompting his puzzled adviser to ask where he got this "idolatry of science."

He used the science for some years in a family business, working as an industrial chemist. When he felt the tug of the humanities, he returned to school to study linguistics and ended up using science in that arena as well.

It was a radical notion at the time, as linguistics was dominated by theorists who relied heavily on intuition. Labov's practice of recording the speech of everyday people, then subjecting it to rigorous statistical analysis, was unprecedented.

"His work is in the community as opposed to being ivory-tower," Poplack said.

In one of Labov's most famous early studies, he demonstrated that variations in speech depend heavily on social class.

He went to three New York City department stores in the 1960s - Saks, Macy's, and S. Klein - and asked salespeople where to find merchandise that he already knew was located on the fourth floor. That way he could see if they dropped the letter R - as in "flo-uh."

The people at upscale Saks did so the least.

"The higher-class the store, the more expensive the goods, the more the R was pronounced," Labov recalled.

He is perhaps best known for his study of language as a living, breathing thing, demonstrating how the pronunciation of vowels changes with time and how certain vocabulary words migrate from city to city.

By looking at ads in telephone books from the 1960s, for example, he showed how the word hoagie made its way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, displacing the word sub.

He worked initially at Columbia University, then moved to Penn in 1970, drawn by Philadelphia's rich, changing stew of vowels. Residents pronounce down more like "day-on," for example, but the degree to which they do so depends on when they were born.

The reasons for these types of changes are still poorly understood, but Labov has embraced newer technology in the quest to find out why, digitizing old recordings and analyzing them by computer.

It is not just about the research. In the last 15 years, Labov has been using his findings on African American English to improve reading instruction in a joint effort with Penn's Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

"He is deeply motivated by the idea that knowledge can improve the world," said Netter Center director Ira Harkavy.

Labov attributed lower reading scores in African American youths to the fact they spoke a dialect, with different grammar and pronunciation than what was used in school materials.

Similar thinking led others to create school materials in black English - the so-called ebonics movement of a few years ago - but Labov says the controversy that provoked swamped its chances of success.

Instead, working with others at Penn, he has developed graphic novels that are written in standard English but contain stories and idioms that resonate with urban youths. Student volunteers from Penn use the materials to work in elementary schools, and so far they seem to be helping, Harkavy said.

"It's very Franklinesque, where Franklin's whole idea was 'What good may I do?' - the idea of knowledge to improve human welfare," Harkavy said. "The fact that Bill Labov is winning the Benjamin Franklin medal could not be more appropriate."


Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com .

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