Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

I Got Laboved

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2013


Bill Labov came to visit Ohio State University this week. This is the guy who, 50 years ago, began to answer what was then a 100-year-old question: What is the origin of the sound changes that run through a language, changing entire vowel systems, collapsing two phonemes into one, splitting one phoneme into two? More specifically, who starts these changes, and how, and why? With just a couple of well-known studies which are now standardly cited in historical linguistics textbooks, he changed how linguists went about researching these questions.

One of those early studies involved listening to how clerks in higher- and lower-end New York department stores pronounced the phrase fourth floor, in order to hear whether they were pronouncing or omitting the /r/ in those words. (This study was recently the subject of a two-part episode of Lexicon Valley.) The method consisted of asking a clerk where to find some item that the researcher knew to be on the fourth floor. When the clerk said, “Fourth floor,” the researcher would pretend not to have heard properly, and the clerk would say it again. In this way, Labov obtained a pair of utterances of the same phrase, said casually (the first time) and more carefully (the second time). Comparing the percentages of speakers who omitted the /r/ both times, pronounced it both times, or omitted it and then pronounced it provided interesting insights when put together with the demographics of the speakers; for a fuller presentation, listen to the Lexicon Valley podcast.

During his visit to OSU, Labov made several presentations, and tonight he and his colleague Gillian Sankoff were the guests of honor at a party at a professor’s house (his daughter’s, in fact). When I got to the party, I saw Labov talking with Brian Joseph, who introduced me.

“Neal Whitman,” I said, shaking hands.

“What was that?” Labov asked.

“Neal,” I said. It was a bit noisy, so I did my visual aid of making as if to kneel. (Get it?)

“No, your last name.”

“Oh!” I said. “Whitman.”

“Ah, you aspirate your W!” he said.

I burst into a grin. “Yes, I do!”

After that we talked for a few minutes about where I grew up, the “Cool Whip” Family Guy clip on YouTube, vowel mergers, and about sounds that persist in a language long after their reported death.

Driving home, I realized: One of Labov’s oldest tricks had taken me completely unawares.

6 Responses to “I Got Laboved”

  1. That’s really cool. He sounds like a really interesting guy, and I hope to have the chance to meet him someday.

  2. loathingthethewordpressloginsystem said

    So where *did* you grow up? Not a lot of places left with aspirated /w/s, after all.

    • Philip Whitman said

      Baytown, Texas & Benicia, California & El Paso, Texas & Washington, D. C. & El Paso, Texas & Houston, Texas & college in Austin, Texas & lastly grad school in Columbus, Ohio, where he still resides. But have you considered the possibility that where I grew up might have had as much influence on his speech as where he grew up? I grew up in South Georgia and New Orleans and Knoxville, Tennessee.

  3. Philip Whitman said

    When I say when or Whitman or whine, I aspirate the W, but when I say win or wine or witless I don’t. Isn’t that the usual way people say them?

    • Catanea said

      Of course. Why would you “pronounce the ‘h'”* if it wasn’t there? Why would orthography insert it if it wasn’t pronounced?
      *We all know it’s not “pronouncing the h”; but I personally get somewhat irritated with linguists who rant on about “g-dropping” being a fatuously incorrect term for saying “huntin’ and fishin'” – the presence of the g clues literate anglophones to pronounce the end of the word in a way most of us cannot easily access the IPA symbol for. They should lighten up.

      • Neal said

        Yes, you and Dad are right. Although I tried to reproduce the conversation as accurately as I could, I knew Labov did not mean that I aspirated all my W’s; he just meant that I did so for Whitman. We talked about whether I did so for words such as whale. (I think I do, but I might find that I don’t if someone records me in unguarded conversation.)

        Regarding “G dropping”: You are correct that the sequence NG tells literate English speakers to produce a velar nasal, and if the term were used just as a convenient shortcut, I think linguists would be more or less OK with it. But what really rustles their jimmies (to use a phrase Doug and Adam have taught me) is when people clearly think that there really is a [g] at the end of these words, and say things like, “If you listen, you can hear the G sound at the end….” No you can’t.

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