Book Review: Dialect Diversity in America by William Labov

Cover of Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change by William Labov.

Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change starts off by spelling out one of the difficulties in linguistic research and communicating it to the public:

In many areas of culture or technology, some older people will embrace and welcome the new. But in thousands of sociolinguistic interviews, no one has ever been heard to say, “I really like the way that young people talk today; it’s so much better than the way we talked when I was young.” Most of us adhere to what one may call the Golden Age Syndrome: the belief that language once existed in a state of perfection, and any change is a decline from that state, to be resisted. (p. viii)

This really is the first and greatest of hills that linguists need to get over in order to talk about language to the public. I wouldn’t be surprised if linguists also have to get their undergrad students over this hill. So it’s good that Labov starts by surmounting this hill because the majority of the book is about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and other non-standard varieties or dialects (linguistics pro-tip: non-standard does not mean substandard, it just means “not at all or not as highly privileged as the standard”). It’s also good that Labov is the one writing this book. He is a legend in the field of linguistics and his writing is clear and direct.

Cover of Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change by William Labov.
Cover of Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change by William Labov.

Chapter 1 is a bit of a primer on linguistics. It tells non-linguists what they need to know to read this book and it summarizes the arguments of each chapter. It begins with something that might be shocking to many non-linguists:

People tend to believe that dialect differences in American English are disappearing, especially given our exposure to a fairly uniform broadcast standard in the mass media […] This overwhelmingly common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong. (pp. 1-2)

I made reference to this idea in a previous post and Labov is right that (some) people think everyone sounds more similar today than they did 10, 20, or 50 years ago – even though the opposite is true. I’m happy to say that Dialect Diversity does an excellent job of showing why American dialects are diverging. The CliffNotes version is: people do speak differently than they did when you were a kid, but their dialects are actually more different than they were back then and they are different in different ways. (I’m not good at CliffNotes. Read the whole book)

At the end of chapter 2, Labov makes an excellent point about our knowledge of language and what we do with it.

Most importantly, the (ING) variable [pronouncing the g in running vs. no pronouncing it in runnin’] is a prototypical example of orderly heterogeneity. It does not interfere with communication: we know that working and workin’, dunking and dunkin’, mean the same thing. Furthermore, the variation of (ING) works for us to establish levels of formality and informality and in any given context, the level of –in’ also tells us something about the social status of the speaker. In a word, we understand (ING). That does not prevent us from attacking Sarah Palin for “dropping her g’s.” Public rhetoric about language is always several stages removed from reality. Because we understand what (ING) is all about, we can always pick it up and use it as a club to beat our opponents on the head and shoulders with, linguistically speaking. (p. 16)

So even though people understand what is being said – and why it is being said in a certain way – we still can’t get over criticizing others (especially women and minorities) for the language that they use. The (ING) variable is even more perfect because everyone – everyone? Yes, everyone – uses it in at least some cases.

I have no notes on chapter 3 except that it is very interesting. Fun even. I guess it was too fun for me to stop and take notes 🙂

Chapter 5, “The Politics of African American English” discusses the divergence of Black and White English in America and how this is affecting African American literacy (the divergence is described in chapter 4). One of the most eye-opening passages in this book comes even before Labov talks about the Ebonics controversy (which Labov was right in the middle of). Labov writes about the ways that researchers have tried to influence the methods of teaching students who are native AAVE speakers.

To do this [giving children who speak AAVE the capacity to understand and use both AAVE and standard English], it is generally agreed that contrastive analysis is helpful: putting the two systems side by side and showing the learner how they differ. […] Contrastive analysis thus depends on and develops knowledge of both systems, for both children and teachers. It is generally understood that knowledge of other groups and different cultures reduces hostility and prejudice toward them. Our sociolinguistic studies find the strongest prejudices against minority groups among those people who have had the least contact with (and the least knowledge of) them. Nevertheless, efforts to use contrastive analysis in the teaching of reading have brought forth a series of political firestorms of increasing intensity which have defeated one program after another. (p. 73, bolding mine)

The sentence I put in bold is shocking and depressing and maddening all at once. But maybe more important is the fact that contrastive analysis sounds logical. It’s no wonder that idiots killed it. Never underestimate people’s desire to force others to speak like them and only like them. Teachers have the power to accept or delegitimize students’ speech and they should be careful with how they use this power. The reason this matters is because it denies kids an education. Labov shows on the following pages that people who said AAVE is “bad English”, “slang” and “ignorant and careless speech” – that is people who did not know what they were talking about, and did not know the linguistics behind AAVE – were able to shape the debate and force unproven and unhelpful teaching methods onto already marginalized children:

The same political reaction to the recognition of AAVE by the school system can be observed in a series of controversies that followed [the negative and uninformed reaction, published in the NAACP’s The Crisis, to early research on AAVE]. In case after case, efforts to use linguistic knowledge of AAVE for contrastive analysis were reported and condemned as programs for teaching children to speak a corrupt brand of English. The idea that African American children spoke a coherent dialect of their own was consistently rejected […] (p. 74)

Labov then goes on to show how complaints about AAVE, or Ebonics, are usually thinly veiled admissions of racism. The dialect is used as a publicly acceptable way to disparage all black people; linguistic discrimination being the last allowable act of bigotry in high-minded liberal corridors. The examples he lists are vile and I don’t want to repeat them here, but in something any linguist could see coming a mile away, the people trying to satirize AAVE end up showing that they do not know how AAVE works. To these Labov only writes “Here again one can see the distance between public discussion and linguistic reality” and calls these hot takes “uninformed reaction[s] masquerading under the ‘helmet of wit’”. They are this but they are worse than that. People who stopped studying math in high school don’t make claims about how math should be taught. But people with high school English under their belt feel comfortable in pedant-splaining to others how language should be taught.

After this Labov shows why linguistic knowledge is important in teaching – through the efforts made by him and other researchers once they were given room (and funding) to develop successful methods for teaching children who speak non-standard varieties such as AAVE. Labov and his colleagues developed contrastive analysis books to help children learn to read. If you’re wondering why those books were written in standard English, it’s because of the teachers’ reactions. Labov says

The battle for the recognition of AAVE in the classroom […] might be won, but it would be a long and expensive battle, waged at the expense of children who could have learned to read under a more realistic approach. The approach that has been taken in The Reading Road and Portals [the material developed by Labov and colleagues] is to provide contrastive eanalysis for the teachers rather than for the students. (pp. 92-93)

Linguists who try to point out that all dialects are rule-governed and that no dialect is better than any other dialect and that non-standard does not mean substandard often receive a sneer from language peevers, “Then why did you write your book in Standard English? Hmmm?” It’s for the people who are not proficient in dialects other than Standard English. The dialect of Standard English is something people can easily acquire because there are more than enough resources out there to teach it. The materials on non-standard dialects are a fraction of what there is for the standard dialect. Books are written in a dialect, by the way. It just happens to be the slang of prigs.

The last two chapters in Dialect Diversity in America take a look at the long history of the shifting dialects in the United States, specifically the Northern Cities Shift. Labov stretches his thesis across almost 200 years of history and ties it to the political switcheroo made by the Republican and Democratic parties. I’ll admit that these chapters lost me a bit, as I found some of the claims a bit more hard to grasp than in the previous chapters. I’m not doubting that Labov has done his research, I just think that the arguments in Chapters 7 and 8 didn’t seem as iron clad as the arguments in earlier chapters. I think, however, that people who are more into sociology, anthropology, politics and/or history than they are into linguistics might find this part of the book is their favorite. This book was, after all, written for non-linguists. If anything, it takes linguistics out of the research lab and applies it to the real world.

I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in American dialects.

Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change (2012) is available from the University of Virginia press for $19.50. There is apparently an online collection of audio to accompany the book, but I did not review these (I got my copy of the book from the library and I can’t remember seeing a reference to the online audio. Maybe it’s in the 2014 edition). You can find a glowing review of Dialect Diversity in America by the distinguished linguist John Baugh here. (PDF for those behind the paywall).


Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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