Re-thinking Labov's Pronunciation Drift Data

Continuing the discussion from Where Rick's Chapter 7 on "Social Control" goes off track where Bruce wrote:

On re-reading Labov’s paper I detected evidence that his model of the results is essentially equivalent to mine inasmuch as it assumes that similarities in pronunciation result from imitation. Here’s a quote from Labov’s paper that suggests that this is the case:

Only when social meaning is assigned to such variations will they be imitated and begin to play a role in the language. [emphasis mine-RM]

So Labov’s model seems to be that people tend to imitate pronunciations that have a preferred social meaning. His main evidence of this is the data in his Table 6:


A PCT model of this could be constructed but quite a bit more data is needed to make the model realistic. Actually, the first thing I would like to see is just a conventional regression analysis with variables he studied – age, geographical location, orientation towards Marth’s Vineyard, etc – as predictors and CI index as the dependent variable. This would give a more precise idea of which of these variables is actually the best predictor of CI index.

Labov’s conclusion that orientation toward Marths’s Vineyard is the best predictor of CI index (based on the data in Table 6) is flawed because it doesn’t take into account the correlation between that variable and other predictors; for example, those positive toward Marth’s Vineyard may live in one mainly in a particular region of Martha’s Vineyard and be of a particular age.

It would also have been nice if Labov had reported the medians and standard deviations of the CI measures as well as the means. Then we could tell whether an apparently large difference in average pronunciation, as is apparent in Table 6, is robust or a result of highly skewed data.

But the data that would be most relevant to an imitation model of pronunciation are measures of the degree to which the members of the population under study interact with each other.

So my model is a reasonable demonstration of the emergence of pronumciation differences that accounts for the available data. It’s defiitely a simple model. But I don’t think it’s correct to say that the model is too simple; the model isn’t too simple; it’s the data. But that’s certainly not Labov’s fault. He did great work but he was working from the perspective of the causal paradigm and he collected data from that perspective. And, of course, he explained it from that perspective as well.