William Labov is professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the field of sociolinguistics. In other words, he was the first person to build a modern study of linguistics based on what people actually say, rather than artificial sentences made up by researchers (yes, I'm talking about you, Chomsky). Bill recently won the Talcott Parsons Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is given out every four years to a single scholar throughout all of the social sciences. I interviewed Bill in late 2020, and this episode is a bit different than anything I've done previously. Instead of releasing the entire conversation, I've recorded some thoughts about what initially drew me to Bill and his work, and interspersed his own words throughout. Bill (and his partner Gillian Sankoff) were also kind enough to send some of the original tapes from Bill's field interviews, including the one from Bill's most famous paper, The Logic of Nonstandard English. Bill has really had a special career as a scholar—and it's not over yet. He's got a book in the works, reflecting on the thousands of linguistic interviews he's conducted throughout his career. Keep an eye out for it!
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