[Editor’s Note: It’s no surprise, given the volume of correspondence we receive (at last estimate, triple the volume of the United States Postal Service), that missives
In 1988 I published a paper entitled ‘What happened to sociolinguistics?’ My concern at that time was that the impetus of the pioneering variationist studies had atrophied and little was happening. In the twenty-
Let me begin with the father figure, William Labov, who prefers to be known as Bill. If you Google the word Labov, the first site that appears has this message:
‘We believe in challenging convention, pushing ourselves... We go beyond by being daring, innovating creative ideas and outthinking the ordinary.’
This is followed by a statement:
‘You won’t know till you get there.’
This is the site for Labov Marketing Communications and Training. The address is not given but it is not difficult to guess that it must be at 619 Williams Hall on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. So what kind of marketing has been going on since 1988?
As we all know, Bill started off as an industrial chemist so it is not surprising that he turned to technology to analyze the audio spectra of speech. Other people were already doing this kind of thing but Bill’s great innovation was to draw circles round the results for individual vowels, thus turning sociolinguistics into a kind of Rorschach test. This was a much quicker method for sorting out graduate students than the old-
Bill also made a pioneering investigation into the marketing of sandwiches under various names such Submarine, Hoagie, Hero, and Grinder. He found that the sandwich sold better in certain areas if marketed under one name rather than another, and probably made a killing.
Bill had carried out this research by consulting telephone directories for their ads. Some time later he realized that the phone book also contained the telephone numbers of actual people and he started calling them up to find out how they spoke and why. This resulted in many more blobs on the Rorschach chart, making it even more difficult for graduate students.
Meanwhile Barbara Johnstone was telling us that quantitative methods were not the way to deal with language variation. Instead, we had to listen to what people were saying as individuals, even if they were politicians. Since moving from Texas to Pittsburgh she has become obsessed with the notion of place (and that place in particular), to the extent of buying the Yappin’ Yinzers Pittsburgh dolls Chipped Ham Sam and Nebby Debbie. This bodes ill for the future of variationist papers in Language and Society.
Penny Eckert meanwhile showed the benefit of having done her doctoral research in France where they know about such things by studying the fashion trends in blue jeans in Detroit. Her work on the social differences between flared and narrow trouser legs transformed the market for Levi’s. I bet she made a bundle. She also introduced a new form of reduplication in English, as in burned out burnouts. The OED refuses to accept such terms as part of the English vocabulary.
Walt Wolfram put his seminary training to good use in rescuing the Ocracoke natives from their insular isolation. He tried to turn the Outer Banks into more profitable off-
Donna Christian, having discovered that a-prefixing can be used to indicate intensity in Appalachia, is reported to be working on b-prefixing, and maybe even c-prefixing. Where will it all end?
Kirk Hazen, having established that wont is an important sociolinguistic variable in the Rural South, is investigating the use of mebbe and Well if you insist.
Dennis Preston has continued his research into language attitudes in the U.S. He has discovered that Michigan speech is no longer the highest ranked form but has been replaced by Oklahoma speech. This is known as the Western Cities Shift.
Bill Kretschmar has used his knowledge of Middle Scots poetry to set up a new pop group, Roswell Voices, which performs at half-
John Rickford abandoned his interest in creole languages that had been based on his experience in Santa Cruz and Philadelphia to turn to soul music, which is widely enjoyed at Stanford.
Carmen Fought abandoned her interest in Los Angeles street gangs to study Our Gang in the attempt to show that we all speak like Disney characters now.
Scott Kiesling has abandoned his interest in fraternity men and now moderates Yinzling events at which Pittburghese is the only recognized form of speech.
Gillian Sankoff is following up her groundbreaking work on the TV series ‘Seven Up’ with analysis of the same group at age 56 and plans to continue this research until they reach the age of 84, by which time Gillian will be 110 but still fluent in French, Tok Pisin and Canadian.
Greg Guy is trying to find out how the obligatory contour principle affects the gyrations of white hip-
Peter Trudgill has abandoned East Anglia for down under where he hopes to find out why New Zealanders at the airport go to the Chicken Disk. When he gets tired of the mild climate he goes off to Norway where he studies the complexity of the currency and its effect on borrowing.
Nikolas Coupland became the joker in the pack of variationists when he decided that the most authentic speakers of dialects were comedians. His new approach to variation is ‘Have you heard the one about the Englishman, the Scotsman, and the Welshman?’ It’s not the joke but how you tell it, and there are important social and regional differences.
Alex D’Arcy went to New Zealand to find out what it was like and found it was, like, well, like Toronto, so she came back.
Paul Kerswill has abandoned his study of dialect leveling in Milton Keynes because the lower levels led to a flood of Estuary English.
Lesley Milroy continued her work on network connections and found that there were only seven degrees of separation between her and Michael Silverstein.
Jack Chambers conducted a survey to find out why there were no responses to his offer to sell his chesterfield on eBay in the U.S.
Sali Tagliamonte investigated the social stratification between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Gots’ in northern Britain and found that it was contracting.
Miriam Meyerhoff’s stay in the city of Edinburgh spurred her to investigate null subjects and null objects. Despite the fact that the citizens of Glasgow wholeheartedly expressed their endorsement of the project, she found there was nothing in it and went back to New Zealand.
Charles Boberg has been investigating what happens when Canadians go to the doctor and have to say Ah. He has also adapted the Rorschach test symbols to make them clearer to those who know tic-
Labov Marketing Communications said we wouldn’t know till we got there. Have we got there yet? Do we know?