William Labov – Martha’s Vineyard


American Sociolinguist William Labov, whose interests include variational sociolinguistics and dialectology.

What was he researching?

Labov was interested in phonological variation. He investigated the /au/ and /ai/ vowel sounds, in words such as mouse and mice, which in linguistic terms is called a diphthong.




Martha’s Vineyard, a small island off the North east coast of America. At the time, the island had a population of approximately 5,800, however it is important to note that during the summer months this figure would swell as it was a popular holiday resort for up to 60,000 Americans.


His Research Method:

Labov interviewed 69 people, each from different age, ethnic and social groups as to get a representative sample. Rather than getting his informants to read simple word lists, Labov used an interview technique to subtly encourage the participants to say the words containing the vowels which he wished to study. By using this research method Labov tried to avoid demand characteristics and make the conversation as natural as possible so that the participants didn’t necessarily know what Labov was looking for…


Example questions from Labov’s interviews:


“When we speak of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, what does right mean? … Is it in writing?”

“If a man is successful at a job he doesn’t like, would you still say he was a successful man?”


These kind of questions subconsciously urge the participants to use words which contained the desired vowels, such as life, might, right, etc.


What did he find out?

Labov found that the pronunciation of certain vowel sounds were subtly changing from the standard American pronunciations and noted that locals had a tendency to pronounce these diphthongs with a more central point, more like [əu, əi].

Fishermen centralise /au/ and /ai/ more than any other occupational group

This was done subconsciously, in order to establish and identify themselves as Vineyarders, an independent social group rejecting the norms of mainland America which was bought over by the summer holiday makers.

People of the age group 30- 60 tend to centralise diphthongs more than younger or older people

This was a move from the standard American norms emerged, particularly in the younger speakers of this bracket between the ages of 31-45, towards a pronunciation associated with the fishermen.

Up-Islanders used the centralised diphthongs more than people living in the area of Down-Island

Down island (East) was much more densely populated and favoured by summer visitors, whilst Up island (West) had many more original inhabitants and was much more rural.


A big factor to consider when discussing the cause of these differences in pronunciations in Martha’s Vineyard is largely down to the attitude of its inhabitants;


The heaviest users of this type of centralised pronunciation of diphthongs were young men who sought to identify themselves as native Vineyarders, rejecting the values and speech style of the mainland.
The fishermen in particular also resented the influx of wealthy summer visitors and were antipathetic to their presence as they believed it infringed on their traditional way of island life. This, in turn, encouraged the Vineyarders to establish a somewhat non-standard dialect and retain their social identity.
The tight knit community subconsciously ensured that they created a linguistic divide between them and us. The fishermen were seen to epitomise desirable values, which in turn caused other Vineyarders to adhere to a similar style of pronunciation.
For these Vineyarders, the new pronunciation was an innovation. As more and more people came to speak in the same way, the innovation gradually became the norm for those living on the island and was established as a dialect.
Therefore, there seems to be enough evidence to state that generations, occupations, or social groups might be a big factor in language use as a sociolinguistic consideration.

A suitable hypothesis for further investigation is:

“People with a more positive attitude towards Martha’s Vineyard would show more centralisation than people who had a negative attitude towards it”



Diphthong: Two vowel sounds occurring in the same syllable e.g cow, eye

Centralised diphthong: Diphthongs articulated with the tongue body in the centre of the mouth

Demand Characteristics: A demand characteristic is a subtle cue that makes participants aware of what the experimenter expects to find or how participants are expected to behave. Demand characteristics can change the outcome of an experiment because participants will often alter their behaviour to conform to the experimenters expectations

Dialect: A variety of language distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar and vocabulary. A dialect is distinguished by its speakers, and their geographic and social whereabouts

Phonological Change: Any sound change which alters the number or distribution of phonemes in a language over time



Gardiner, A., (2008). Revision Express, English Language. New edition. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.