Saturday, July 19, 2008

As often happens when Labov appears in public, he was asked if he could perform a variation on the “My Fair Lady” trick: to identify what part of New York City a person came from, based on his speech. Labov shook his head, causing his enormous glasses to slide down his nose. “People want me to tell them which block,” he said. “The fact is—but don’t write this, because it will enrage people—Brooklynese is exactly the same whether it’s spoken in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island or in Brooklyn. Or the Lower East Side.” The city’s dialect, he said, is much more indicative of one’s social status than of one’s neighborhood. “Although no one wants to admit this,” he added, “because we’re supposed to live in a classless society.”


  1. Chuckie K10:41 AM

    I don't suppose a lot of the readers here will be interested in pursuing Labov's work, but I wanted to point out, that in the 1960s he also did groundbreaking work in the investigation of the varieties of English and ways of speaking among African-Americans. Systematic debunking of racist bias clothed in an ideology of linguistic prescription. His scientific work does not come across as overtly leftist, in contrast, say, to the anthropological linguist Dell Hymes, but Labov is a real materialist. His older work is represented in the 1972 collection "Language in the inner city; studies in the Black English vernacular."

  2. Thx K, I didn't know that.

  3. Chuckie K10:23 AM

    While I was mowing the lawn yesterday evening, I realized I had probably not done Labov justice.

    In another artilce from the 1960.s, not included in language in the Inner city, he made a linguistic defense of a speech given by a Black Panther leader. (I'm guessing H.Newton, but I just don't remember.)

    The speech critcized Nixon and repeated the phrase "I'm a kill him." The national media interpreted this phrase as an assassination threat.

    Labov demonstrated that 'kill' here had a metaphorically displaced sense particular to certain genres in African-american ways of speaking, and that it meant roughly, 'thoroughly, effectively, and publically expose and discredit.'

    Defending Black Panther leaders in the 1960s. I suppose you call that 'leftist.'