50 years of language study began on Martha’s Vineyard

Menemsha lobsterman Donald LeMar Poole, shown in his workshop in 1981, was among the people William Labov, a Masters student at Columbia University, interviewed in 1961 during his early research on dialectology. — Photo by J.B. Riggs Parker

Martha’s Vineyard was the site of a groundbreaking 1961 study in sociolinguistics, the field of research that looks at language in its social context — and it has everything to do with Vineyard pride.

When people think of language on Martha’s Vineyard, they may be aware of the 19th century deaf population in Chilmark who used their own version of sign language. But a study on a different linguistic subject — celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer — has become famous among contemporary language scholars around the world.

We are often aware that people speak differently from one another. For example, we joke that people in Boston “pahk the cah” and people in New York order “cwah-fee” — but we also know that not all people in Boston “pahk the cah” and many New Yorkers do order “coffee” after all.

William Labov was a Masters student at Columbia University doing research on dialectology — the ways that language differs from place to place. But more than his contemporaries, Labov sought to probe more deeply into the social influences of different dialects — not simply to document the subtle differences in language, but to understand why changes take place. He came to the Vineyard in the summer of 1961 for field research.

Labov noticed that some Islanders were shifting the vowel sounds in words such as sound and bout to what linguists call more “central productions” or, what we might call, a “more closed-mouth pronunciation”— pronouncing them like seund and beut rather than with the mouth more opened as in the typical forms of sound and bout. This went in the opposite direction of earlier historical changes in the English spoken in New England. Younger Vineyarders were using “older” vowel sounds, and were doing so more than people in their parents’ generations. Why would some Vineyarders revert to an arguably archaic style of speaking?

Labov interviewed native Vineyarders of different ages from longstanding British, Portuguese, and Wampanoag families. Importantly, he did not ask people about language itself — most people cannot explain why they speak the way they do. Instead, he recorded them talking about their lives, and about what being a Vineyarder meant to them. And then he listened very closely to both the content and the sounds in the recordings. What he discovered was striking.

The Islanders using these older vowel sounds the most tended to be Up-Islanders who were involved in traditional Island activities, especially Chilmarkers who were fishermen. Further, and even more importantly, they were people who identified most positively with the Island, and were largely 30- and 40-year-olds who had decided to lead traditional Vineyard lives through fishing or farming — either returning to the Island after college or foregoing college entirely.

Martha’s Vineyard in the 1950s and 1960s was changing from its traditional rural economy to one more like the present day, emphasizing tourism and off-Island mobility. Labov theorized that the “old-fashioned” vowel sound was one way that traditional Vineyarders could resist — albeit subconsciously and subtly — the social changes that were going on around them.

The study on Martha’s Vineyard was Labov’s master’s thesis and was published in a 1963 article in Word, the journal of the Linguistics Circle of New York. Armed with this new approach, Labov went on to study other communities, including New York City, for his doctoral dissertation, which he published as a, now famous, linguistics volume in 1966. Countless scholars have continued and expanded this tradition.

Moving beyond general kinds of observations (“pahk the cah” vs. “park the car”) to a scientific study of the social factors behind a sound change or language alteration was a huge step forward for understanding how and why language varies and how changes spread over time and space. Labov’s new methodology provided a way to study scientifically how the subtleties of language are related to our social world and identities.

Today, this field — sociolinguistics — is among the most active areas of linguistic research. It studies not only how language is influenced by social factors — like who we are and what we associate with — but how language changes, and why. Language, from the words and structural elements we use to the individual sounds of speech, is malleable and constantly changing. With a good enough ear and a fine attention to detail it’s possible to observe as some of these changes unfold.

And it started on Martha’s Vineyard.

William Labov, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, remains one of the most influential figures in American linguistics. A recent talk given by Professor Labov for the American Council of Learned Societies, with some nice excerpts from interviews he has conducted over his life — including one with Donald Poole from the Vineyard — is available online.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has a large collection of oral history recordings which are available for listening. Many of these feature older Vineyarders in whose speech you can hear remnants of this earlier Vineyard pronunciation.

Tyler Kendall attended the West Tisbury School and graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1994. He is an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Oregon.