Professor William Labov is to American dialect what Lewis and Clark are to American geography. He's the pathfinder. Labov's new work, which is called 'The Atlas of North American English,' constitutes the first coast-to-coast charting of all the major dialects spoken in the continental United States and Canada. The dialects are represented on a hundred and thirty-nine color-coded maps, and software that accompanies the book lets you click on different regions of the country and eavesdrop on people talking. Or you can search for single words, 'go,' 'do,' for instance, and hear how widely their pronunciations vary from place to place.
One evening recently, Labov and his two co-authors, Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg, introduced the book at a reception in N.Y.U.'s D'Agostino Hall, as part of the Thirty-fourth NWAV (New Ways of Analyzing Variation) linguistic conference. The room was full of young NWAV linguists, whose field Labov more or less invented--he is often called the father of sociolinguistics--and who treated him with a mixture of awe and filial tenderness, making sure 'Bill' had enough to eat and drink, and that the Web site he would be demonstrating was ready to roll.
Labov, who is seventy-seven, is the director of the linguistics lab at the University of Pennsylvania. He is small and wiry and fit-looking. At N.Y.U., he was asked a lot of questions about the local dialect, commonly known as Brooklynese. Its three most prominent features are the raised 'a' in words like 'past' (peahst), the 'aw' sound in words like 'coffee' (cawfee), and, of course, the dropped 'r' in words like 'water' (watta). Labov explained his contention that the city's dropped 'r' has its origins in posh British speech: when F.D.R. dropped his 'r's ('The only thing we have to feah is feah itself') and Katharine Hepburn dropped hers ('My, she was yah'), it sounded upper class. But after the Second World War, Labov said, with the loss of Britain's imperial status 'r'-less British speech ceased to be regarded as 'prestige speech'--William F. Buckley was a consuvative, but George W. Bush is not--and the dropping of 'r's became exclusively working class.
'Before the war,' Labov said, 'the judges in the gangster pictures dropped their 'r's, but after the war only the hoodlums did it.' Ralph Kramden, Archie Bunker, and Tony Soprano all speak Brooklynese, and the dialect immediately evokes their regular-guy milieu.
Apart from the adenoidal 'oi' sound in words like 'bird' (boid), which has largely disappeared from the area, Brooklynese has remained unchanged for the past fifty years. 'The dialect spoken by all those firemen on TV after September 11 was pure, unmodified New York speech from the nineteen-fifties,' Labov said. However, New York's dialect is intensely regional. There is a tiny portion of eastern New Jersey, along the edge of the Hudson, where you can hear Brooklynese, but by the time you're in Paterson you're well into what Labov calls the Jersey 'nasal system.' You can hear Brooklynese spoken in parts of New Orleans and Cincinnati, Labov added, the legacy of the New York bankers who moved to those cities in the nineteenth century to finance the cotton trade.
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.'
One of Labov's most famous linguistic studies involved interviewing New Yorkers at Saks Fifth Avenue, in the nineteen-sixties. He found that customers on the upper floors, where the goods were more expensive, were far less likely to drop their 'r's than those on the lower floors, and that the floorwalkers almost never dropped theirs, while the cashiers sometimes did, and the stock boys always did. 'It didn't matter which part of New York they were from,' he said.
These days, Labov found, the most extreme dialect change in the country is taking place in the Chicago area. 'The 'eah' sound, which you hear in 'happened''heahppened'is a young, very invasive sound that is rapidly changing a number of other sounds around it,' he said. This so-called 'Northern Cities Shift' is spreading toward St. Louis along I-55, transforming the Inland North dialect, which used to be the model for standard American pronunciation. Labov explained that locals in such areas as northern Ohio and Michigan traditionally spoke precise English because they wanted to distinguish themselves from the speakers of Southern dialects in their states'a split that seems to go back to the Civil War. John Kenyon, the pronunciation editor for the second edition of Webster's, in the thirties, came from northeastern Ohio, and he helped make Inland North the standard American dialect.
What causes dialects to change? Not television, Labov said. The people he calls 'extreme speakers'--those who have the greatest linguistic influence on others--tend to be visible local people: 'politicians, Realtors, bank clerks.' But isn't slang a bottom-up phenomenon? 'Slang is just the paint on the hood of the car,' Labov said. 'Most of the important changes in American speech are not happening at the level of grammar or language--which used to be the case--but at the level of sound itself.'
Nary an 'r' was dropped nor an 'a' raised during the question-and-answer session that followed Labov's presentation. As people were gathering their things to leave, however, a security guard asked a departing guest, 'Is the professa's tawk finished?'
-- John Seabrook