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”You speak differently at the doctor’s than at a party”

”You speak differently at the doctor’s than at a party”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Leonie Cornips inspired by William Labov

“William Labov, everyone calls him Bill, is the founding father of sociolinguistics, my field of specialisation,” says professor Leonie Cornips. “Before Labov, American scientists studied the language as a mental construct. They analysed sentences and decided intuitively whether a sentence like ‘I see a bird in the garden’ was linguistically correct or not. Labov, who after a career as a jacket blurb writer, ink maker and market researcher, entered into research when he was 33, couldn’t understand why all those researchers looked at language from behind a desk. You should be out on the streets, listening to the daily use of language by ordinary people. That was unique in the US.”

Labov’s research led to many insights, says Cornips. “We now know that everyone varies in their use of language: you speak differently at the doctor’s than at a party. There is a difference between formal and informal use of language. And he showed that language is alive, that it is constantly changing.” A remarkable and new thing was that he used quantitative methods for his language research. “He recorded accents, wrote them out phonetically and then counted in which context certain sounds occurred. In this way, during his research on the island of St. Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, he discovered differences in the pronunciation of the word ‘time’. During the summer months, the island is awash with tourists and not all of the six thousand inhabitants, most of them descendants from the British, Irish, Red Indians and Portuguese, were happy about this. Those who detested all those outsiders didn’t say ‘time’ but ‘teum’ in order to distinguish themselves. It turned out that these were the fishermen, the natives. But also descendants of Portuguese immigrants used the ‘eu’ sound. They wanted to emphasise that they too – although not native – were from the island.”

Cornips emphasises that empiric research is essential for sociolinguistics. Following in Labov’s footsteps, she did fieldwork too when she was writing her thesis on the syntax of Dutch spoken in Heerlen. She knows that “every sociolinguist focuses on minority languages and has liberating motives.” Even Labov. “He worked a lot among African Americans and showed, among other things, that the ‘language at home’ is different from the ‘language at school’. He advised schools to capitalise more on the language at home. This would improve the school children’s’ learning performance.”

Cornips published an article in Labov’s own journal and has met him on a number of occasions: a small, fragile man who does not look at his audience during a lecture. “I was disappointed the first time, but then when you speak to him by himself, he is very open and interested.” Labov will turn 89 this year and he retired in 2014. “I am one of the people who is allowed to write an article in the international sociolinguistic journal that will be published this year – fifty years after Labov’s publication of the most influential study about the pronunciation of the letter ‘r in New York’ (result: the more formal the use of language, the clearer the ‘r’). That is a great honour.”



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