Frontiers

Tawkin’ American

Linguist publishes first comprehensive guide to the varieties of speech patterns across the U.S. and Canada.
April 2006

In the musical My Fair Lady, phonetician Henry Higgins hid behind a pillar taking notes on the speech patterns of the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle.In the musical My Fair Lady, phonetician Henry Higgins hid behind a pillar taking notes on the speech patterns of the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. From the way she spoke, the snooty professor could identify her place of birth. Penn linguist William Labov, the John H. and Margaret B. Fassitt Professor, doesn’t conduct field research from behind columns, nor does he hold to Higgins’ musical observation regarding the English language: “In America, they haven’t used it for years.” In his massive new book, The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change, Labov, with coauthors Sharon Ash, G’74, Gr’82, and Charles Boberg, Gr’97, lays out the first coast-to-coast overview of the major dialects spoken and sound changes underway in the U.S. and Canada. There is no uniform accent of North American English, linguists say, only a variety of dialects that continuously undergo sound changes. “Most of the important changes in American speech are not happening at the level of grammar or language but at the level of sound itself,” he told a New York City gathering. The Atlas includes color-coded maps and a CD that lets readers search and hear the variations on how people speak. “The biggest new sound change we found – in the Great Lakes area – spreads out over 80,000 square miles and 34 million people,” Labov says.

Q & A with Labov from the Penn Current
LINK: http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/current/2006/011206/cover.html