Professor of Linguistics

University of Pennsylvania


Linguistics Laboratory 
3810 Walnut St. 
Philadelphia, PA 19104


(215) 898-4912


(215) 573-2427



Office Hours:

Tuesday 1:00 - 3:00 PM 
or by appointment

PowerPoints of recent presentations

Curriculum Vitae



New Plotnik 10.3

Current papers

Language change

The Atlas of North American English 

Research on reading


Quantitative analysis

Other papers

The regularity of sound change. Paper submitted to Language. Examines the role of the lexicon in a regular sound change--raising of /eyC/ in the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus throughout the 20th century--to see if the basic unit of change is the word, as proponents of lexical diffusion believe--or the phonologically defined allophone. A number of different quantitative methods show that all words in which /ey/ is found in the relevant environment are selected and move together from the beginning to the end. In the course of this change, the target of raising is changed from words with zero and velar onset to words with a following [+consonantal] segment.

Principles of Linguistic Change, Volume 3: Cognitive and Cultural Factor. This third volume of PLC has now appeared in print. For convenient reference, revised drafts of Chapters 1-17 are still available for downloading in the form submitted to Wiley Blackwell.

A Life of Learning: Six People I have learned from Haskins Prize lecture given at the ACLS annual meeting 2009, published on line here with sound extracts.

What is to be learned? Paper presented at LAUD Symposium on Cognitive Sociolinguistics, Landau in March 2009. It is proposed that the human language learning faculty is outwardly bound, in that children are programmed to ignore idiosyncratic dialects and acquire the more general pattern of the speech community. Evidence is brought forward from the widespread tendency of children to avoid the foreign dialect or accent of their parents, the geograhic uniformity of metropolitan speech communities, and the even larger uniformities of dialect regions.

Where Shall I Begin? Georgetown Round Table paper, developing the approach to narrative first summarized in Narrative Preconstruction. Pre-construction begins with the most reportable event and proceeds backwards in time to locate events that are linked causally each to the following one, a recursive process that ends with the location of the orientation as an unreportable event--one that is not reportable in itself and needs no explanation.

Unendangeed Dialect, Endangered People: the Case of African American Vernacular English (in press). Transforming Anthropology 18. Paper given at AAA session on Endangered Languages. Shows that AAVE is not endangered but is developing rapidly in its grammar and semantics, as a consequence of residenetial segregation. Reports programs for raising readng levels that confronts the reality of life in the inner city, with extensive quotations from second grade girls which show why are involved in violence.

The web site of the Penn Reading Initiative is now operating, with information on the scope, purpose and organization of this project, designed to mobilize Penn tutors to raise reading levels in local schools. The main instrument for tutoring, The Reading Road, is available for downloading at this site.


The latest revision of Plotnik, Plotnik10,3 is compatible with the Lion operating system (OS 10.7). Like Plotnik 10.2, it, accepts the vey large token files created by FAVE (forced alignment and automatic vowel measurement), and interacts with PRAAT so that one can move seamlessly from the Plotnik display to the spectral display and curssor position that the Plotnik symbol is based on. One can display a list of all words in a given phoneme, and locate all the tokens of a given word. This permits re0measurement, and on return to Plotnik, acceptance or rejection of the new value.
Download Plotnik10.3.

Current papers

Language change

Transmission and diffusion. This is a .pdf version of the papeer as it appeared in print in Language 83:344-387, 2007. It proposes to integrate the family tree model of language change with the wave model.into a general framework based on changes in language learning ability across the lifespan. The general argument is that the divergence of branches of the family tree is based on the transmission of language structure from adults to children, and the incrementatiaon of changes in progress by children. The diffusion of language contact across branches of the tree is primarily the work of adults who do not preserve structural conditions with the same fidelity, which accounts for the limitations on structural borrowing. The paper studies in detail the diffusion of the NYC short-a system to four other cities, and the diffusion of the Northern Cities Shift to St. Louis along Route I-55. The material and the argument are integrated into Volume 3 of Principles of Linguistic Change as Chapter 15.

50 msec with Maciej Baanowski. .2006. Language Variation and Change 18:223-240. A paper initially delivered at NWAVE 33 under the title of "Collision course," concerning an investigation of the overlapping of descending /e/ and fronting /o/ in the course of the Northern Cities Shift. The question is whether or not this overlap in F1/F2 measurements is accompanied by some other feature that disstinguishs them. Duration is the most likely candidate, since /o/ may have acquired phonemic length in its merger with /ah/ in father, spa, etc.  There is only a 50 msec mean difference in the durations of /e/ and /o/ in this area, but experimemtal results show that such a small difference can change category assignment. This is consistent with changes in apparent time, which show a continuing lowering of /e/. especially among women.

Pursuing the cascade model.. A study of the diffusion of linguistic change from the largest city in a region to the progressively next largest cities, using new data from the Atlas of North American English and data on the diffusion of fast food cuisine terms. The diffusion of hoagie from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh is traced with an exact account of the time, place and mechanism. In D. Britain and J. Cheshire (eds). Social Dialectology: In Honor of Peter Trudgill. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Driving forces in linguistic change. In proceedings of the 2002 International Conference on Korean Linguistics. This paper deals with triggering events, driving forces and rising levels in linguistic change, and forms part of the synthesis that will be presented in Volume 3 of Principles of Linguistic Change.


The Atlas of North American English 

W. Labov, S. Ash and C. Boberg, The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, phonology and sound change. Berlin: Mouton/de Gruyter, 2006. The Atlas is now published and available to libraries and individuals, along with a CD which contains the major functions of the web site. A demonstration copy is available at http://www.mouton-online.com.. If a library has ordered the Atlas, the web site will be available to all those who have access to the library's electronic data-bases, and the complete text of the Atlas can be downloaded in .pdf format. Chapter 11 can be downloaded from the Telsur home page.

Research on reading

1/7/11 What is a reading error?  with Bettina Baker. A.pdf version of this paper as it appeared Applied Psycholinguistics 31 (2010), 735757. It is the result of research on profiles of reading errors among African American, Euro-American and Latino children throughout the country. It returns to the distinction between differences in pronunciation and mistakes in reading, and shows that it is not possible to decide the status of a given possible error in most cases. A probabilistic solution to the problem is obtaining by studying the semantic shadows cast by possible errors in raising or lowering the frequency  of followiing errors. Results differ for clear errors, pand correct readings, while various types of possible errors tend to behave like one or the other. Striking differences among language/ethnic groups appear which may be linked to varying knowledge of underlying forms. From these results, it is possible to determine which phonological and grammatical patterns most require instruction. Note: There is an error in the labeling of the legend of Figure 4 on p. 748: The symbols on the left should be ordered as black, grey and white.

7/1/06 Unendangered dialects, endangered people. A paper given in March 2006 at the Georgetown Round Table, which focussed on "Endangered and Minority Languages and Language Varieties." It documents the fact that AAVE is not an endangered dialect, but is flourishing and developing as it continues to diverge from other dialects. The paper then shows that the social condition for such divergence is residential segregation, and discusses the social consequences that endanger the lives of speakers of the dialect. The relation of AAVE to reading failure is considered and the relation of reading failure to the cycle of unemployment, crime and family disruption. The paper concludes that if there should be a substantial social shift towards racial integration, AAVe might become an endangered dialect.To appear in the Georgetown Round Table volume for 2006.

 6/15/98 A Graphic-Phonemic Analysis of the Reading Errors of Inner City Children .W. Labov, B. Baker, L. Ross, M. Brown.
Download the paper in pdf format

Work on narrative

1/1/11. Oral narratives of personal experience. An entry just appearing in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences, summarizing the approach to narrative analysis that began with Labov and Waletzky 1967, and incorporating some of the more recent methods that are developed in the three papers posted in the Narrative section below.

3/12/06. Narrative pre-construction. This short paper appeared in Narrative Inquiry 16.1, a special issue on the state of the art of narrative analysis. It argues that before a narrative can be constructed, it must be pre-constructed by a cognitive process that begins with a decision that a given event is reportable. Pre-construction begins with this most reportable event and proceeds backwards in time to locate events that are linked causally each to the following one, a recursive process that ends with the location of the unreportable event--one that is not reportable in itself and needs no explanation. Comparison of the chain of events with the generated sequence of narrative clauses will give insight into the work a narrator does in transforming and re-organizing events from real time.

2/21/02 Ordinary events. A contribution to the proceedings of a conference at Pitzer College, edited by John Fought and Carmen Richardson. It examines a narrative of Ellen Laidlaw recorded by Ron Macaulay in Ayr concerning her father's death, and focuses on the role of very ordinary events in this extraordinary narrative. Download as pdf file.

 9/1/01Uncovering the event structure of narrative.A paper given at the Georgetown Round Table in March of 2001, which examines the possibility of recovering the actual events that underlie a narrative. This is examined first in a story about the first person killed by a car in South Lyons, Michigan, and the confession of a convicted felon in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission records.

Frequency studies

Listeners' sensitivity to frequency. with Sherry Ash, Maya Rabindranath, Tracey Weldon, Maciej Baranowski and Naomi Nagy. This is a first draft of the first of a series of reports on current research on the role of evaluation in linguistic variation and change. A series of experiments were carried out to determine whether listeners could distinguish between various percentages of apical and velar nasals in the suffix -ing to match the typical range of variation found in production. The experiments exposed listeners in Philadelphia, Columbia SC and Durham NH to various trials of a speaker attempting tho qualify as a news broadcaster, where the only differences were the frequencies of /in/ and /ing/. Listeners' responses fit closely an exponential curve, indicating that the sociolinguistic monitor was sensitive to differences as small as 10%, with a social impact equivalent to the proportional increase in deviations from the expected norm..


Thinking about Charles Ferguson. Number 163 of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language is an issue edited by Kirk Belnap on "Arabic Sociolinguistics as Viewed by Western Arabists", and dedicated to the memory of Charles Ferguson. The three pages I wrote have nothing to say about Arabic, but they are my best effort to express the profound admiration that I have always had for Fergie. The paper has something to say about wisdom, and other things that were on the tip of my tongue. . .

Some observations on the foundations of linguistics. This is a paper that I wrote in 1987 but never published.  It deals with some general issues concerning the opposition between a mentalist (or idealist) approach to linguistics, and the materialist line taken by historical linguists, dialectologists and sociolinguists.  I would welcome any comments before revising it to fit the current situation..

1/2/02 How I got into linguistics, and what I got out of it.. This is a recent revision of the paper I wrote for undergraduates in 1997, to appear shortly in print.

Quantitative analysis

Quantitative reasoning in linguistics. A chapter to appear in Peter Trudgill (ed.), Mouton/De Gruyter Handbook.

Other papers

dealing with language change in progress, narrative analysis, African American Vernacular English, and Ebonics.


LING560 The study of the speech community
Mon 9-11, Linguistics Lab, 3810 Walnut St.

LING563 Sound change in progress
Wed 9-11, Linguistics Lab, 3810 Walnut St.