Sociolinguist William Labov Headlines Fall Page-Barbour Lecture Series

September 08, 2009

September 8, 2009 — Renowned sociolinguist William Labov will give a series of public lectures on "The Politics of Linguistic Change in America" Sept. 22 through 24 at the University of Virginia. The speeches are part of the twice-annual Page-Barbour Lectures.

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Each of the three daily lectures – presented at 4 p.m. in the auditorium at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library in the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture – will address a different subtopic of his overall theme.

On Sept. 22, Labov will give a lecture titled "Increasing Diversity of Regional Dialects in North America." The following day, his focus will be on "The Growing Division Between Black and White English." He will conclude Sept. 24 with a speech concerning "Yankee Cultural Imperialism and the Northern Cities Shift."

A catered reception will follow each lecture.

The Page-Barbour Lectures were founded in 1907 by Mrs. Thomas Nelson Page, who specified that individuals specialized in a department of study relevant to the arts and sciences should annually address the University community with new ideas or thoughts germane to their fields. The topics should also be cohesive enough for the University to publish a book of the collected lectures.

The Page-Barbour Lectures are in combination with the James W. Richard Lectures, which also bring renowned academics to the University community to lecture within the field of religion or history.

Former Page-Barbour guests have ranged from poet T.S. Eliot to physicist Freeman Dyson, denoting the breadth of subjects incorporated into the program's creed.

Labov is a 1948 Harvard graduate with degrees in English and philosophy. After college, he briefly worked as an industrial chemist, but soon left the world of "small business" due to its "agonizing and restricting" limits on knowledge, a direct effect of "economic constraints" within the profession, according to his online autobiography.

Soon after dislodging himself from that career path, he enrolled in Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1964 and taught for subsequent years.

Labov now teaches linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. His most famous work, emerging in the late 1960s, argued for the public to respect the African-American vernacular as its own dialect of English.

"Scholars have known for a long time that languages are always changing. We don't speak English today the same way that Shakespeare or Chaucer spoke it, for example," said Eve Danziger, a member of the Page-Barbour Lectures committee and associate professor of anthropology. "But until Labov came along, there was really no theory or data about exactly how the changes in progress looked or operated within a living society at any given time.

Labov's lectures "will focus on the enormous diversity within American society, a theme that is highly appropriate for our lecture series in the 21st century," she added.

The spring Page-Barbour Lecture series will feature University of Chicago philosophy professor Robert B. Pippin.

— by Ashley Mathieu