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.