Talcott Parsons Prize: Bill Labov's acceptance speech

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One of the recent events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic was the ceremony awarding the Talcott Parsons Prize to Bill Labov:

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences is awarding linguist William Labov the Talcott Parsons Prize for distinguished and original contributions to the social sciences. […]

Labov is regarded as the founder of variationist sociolinguistics, which is a discipline dedicated to understanding and researching language in relation to social factors that include region, race, class, and gender. The impact of Labov’s work is far-reaching and extends through the practice of language science around the world, hundreds of significant publications, and the countless students and scholars he mentored. His influence has been felt in education, sociology, computational and cognitive science, and law.

But you can read his prepared remarks, which start this way, here:

I had worked for ten years as an industrial chemist, and I brought with me the habits of numerical recording, testing and experimentation. I left behind a career of accumulation of trade secrets and entered into the pursuit of the universal properties of human language at Columbia University. There I found a very different mode of gathering data; for most linguists at that time it was by asking “Can you (or I) say this?”

It occurred to me that the field could profit by the adoption of the new invention, the tape recorder, which preserved what people actually did say. I also found that it was good that I brought my numerical habits with me, because there was considerable variation in the way that people said the same words or sentences.

Read the whole thing!



  1. Anlam K said,

    March 18, 2020 @ 5:37 am

    If my memory serves me right, we had met Labov’s test earlier on this blog, especially with regards to Derrida.

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 18, 2020 @ 5:49 am

    It seems interesting that Labov's remarks include no mention of his famous discovery, the mysterious Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which I never heard from any of the many people I've known who were from the places where it's supposed to exist. Could it be something that, unlike regional speech features in general, disappears as soon as one moves to New York or California or Europe?

  3. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    March 18, 2020 @ 6:50 am

    @Coby Lubliner
    Check this map: https://aschmann.net/AmEng/

  4. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 18, 2020 @ 8:32 am

    @ Coby Lubliner: That's funny! The first time I became acutely aware of the shift was in a speaker from Rochester who had lived in Colorado for a long time before I first heard him. And his DRESS vowel was the most striking to me.

    Listen to this guy and his dentist and belly, and of course all of this LOT vowels. Or, for that matter, you can start with Labov's demonstration here.

  5. Bloix said,

    March 18, 2020 @ 10:50 am

    Jarek – This guy sounds pretty much standard midwestern to me – Chicago/Detroit/Minneapolis. I was in my teens when I first heard these vowels so it made an impression. That was 45 years ago and I'm not hearing anything different here. Maybe it's spreading more widely but I don't think the accent itself is new.

  6. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    March 18, 2020 @ 1:52 pm

    @ Bloix: Because it isn't new. I think the research that looked into what started the shift found the first symptoms well before WWII. The newest studies actually show a reversal. For example, there has been a paper relatively recently showing that (if memory serves) younger people in Detroit have the pan-American "nasal TRAP" system rather than a generally high TRAP across the board.

  7. Viseguy said,

    March 19, 2020 @ 1:56 pm

    Professor Labov was already renowned when I had the privilege of taking introductory linguistics with him at Columbia, 50 years ago. Each student was asked to listen to several of his (reel-to-reel, of course) tapes in connection with the end-of-term assignment, a paper comparing — in what particular respect, I can't recall — different dialects of English. I remember, vividly, sitting in his office and marveling at how much more comprehensible his recording of a Cockney speaker was, compared to the dialect of a young man from deep in rural Texas. But the best part was his classes. As a teacher, he was dynamic, learned, approachable, unforgettable. I'm happy he's being honored and will read his written remarks with great pleasure. Felicitations, Bill Labov!

  8. Jenny Chu said,

    March 19, 2020 @ 10:48 pm

    I learned about Prof. Labov 25+ years ago as an undergraduate and he was already a legend. I had no idea he was still alive and I am delighted to hear about his honor!

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