Uriel Weinreich: Builder on Empirical Foundations

In: Journal of Jewish Languages
Author: William Labov1
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  • 1 Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, pa, U.S.A.

Abstract

In this article, William Labov offers a personal take on the scholarly accomplishments and advising style of Uriel Weinreich, his mentor and later his colleague as well. He also draws on letters he and Weinreich exchanged in the mid-1960s, and he documents aspects of the collaboration that resulted in Weinreich’s most lasting contribution to the study of language change, the 1968 Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog paper (U. Weinreich, W. Labov, and M.I. Herzog. “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change,” in Directions for Historical Linguistics, eds. W.P. Lehmann and Y. Malkiel. Austin: University of Texas Press, 95–195).

Abstract

In this article, William Labov offers a personal take on the scholarly accomplishments and advising style of Uriel Weinreich, his mentor and later his colleague as well. He also draws on letters he and Weinreich exchanged in the mid-1960s, and he documents aspects of the collaboration that resulted in Weinreich’s most lasting contribution to the study of language change, the 1968 Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog paper (U. Weinreich, W. Labov, and M.I. Herzog. “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change,” in Directions for Historical Linguistics, eds. W.P. Lehmann and Y. Malkiel. Austin: University of Texas Press, 95–195).

This article is an account of an extraordinary scholar and human being who created the general approach to the study of linguistic change and variation that is dominant in the world today.

I first met Uriel Weinreich in the fall of 1962 when I entered the field of linguistics at Columbia University, where he was chair of the department. In this article, I would like to sketch a portrait of Weinreich the mentor, the man, and the linguist, and then present an account of the creation of the influential article, “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change” (1968), which he wrote with Marvin Herzog and myself shortly before his death at the age of 40.

I wrote my master’s essay under Weinreich’s supervision—a study of sound change on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. I then did my dissertation on the social stratification of English in New York City. In 1965, I joined the faculty at Columbia and worked with Uriel until his death in March of 1967.

My own interest in linguistic change and variation covered only a small part of the range of Weinreich’s creative activity. He began the study of his native Yiddish language in a Vilna high school with the encouragement of his father Max Weinreich. Uriel wrote a text for those who would learn that language, College Yiddish (1949), and an English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English dictionary (1968). His 1951 dissertation was a study of languages in contact in Switzerland. Languages in Contact, the theoretical core of this study, remains the basic text on the principles of interlanguage and cross-linguistic influence. The full dissertation, with all of his notes, tables, and photographs, was published in 2011. He was a creative force in dialect geography and sociolinguistics, designing and directing the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (lcaaj), which reconstructed from the evidence of expatriates after the Holocaust the phonology and grammar of Yiddish dialects. He was a major player in the development of semantic theory in the generative framework, and made important advances in the study of idioms. He was the editor of Word for a decade, and made that journal a leading force in the development of a socially conscious linguistics. He was deeply engaged in the major issues of general linguistics and participated actively in the shift from a structuralist to a generativist framework.

Yet given this wide range of research and administrative activities, Weinreich was profoundly committed to teaching. If a class was scheduled for Wednesday, he was completely unavailable all day Tuesday as he prepared for it. It so happened that my mother was a native speaker of Weinreich’s own dialect of Vilna Yiddish, though not literate in that language. She was delighted when I returned with examples from Uriel’s courses on Yiddish grammar and phonology, though she never really believed me when I told her that ikh hob geborn ‘I was born’ was not standard Yiddish.1 She would have been even more delighted if my dissertation had been on Yiddish, but fate moved in other directions.

In the year of my dissertation I met with Uriel once a week to discuss the work on the social stratification of English in New York City. He rarely intervened to suggest new directions. But at the end of each meeting I would ask myself, “Where did I talk the most?” That was the point where I had to make some serious changes in what I was doing.

I was in fact the petit-fils of André Martinet, who had been chair of Columbia’s department from 1947 to 1955. Uriel’s commitment to structural analysis was consistent with his alignment to Martinet. Nevertheless, he was quite resistant to any pressure to become his disciple. He distanced himself from Martinet’s rejection of generative grammar and was more than a little critical of the absence of social orientation among the Martinetians in France and New York City. But he reinforced the alignment to Martinet’s thinking in our student body by inviting William Moulton of Princeton to teach a course in dialect geography at Columbia. Moulton not only demonstrated the rich possibilities of structural explanation of change in his analyses of Swiss German dialects, but also acquainted us with the work of a wide range of 19th century linguists whose work had fallen by the way.

I would like to insert here something about Weinreich’s personal style, if it were possible to capture that combination of calmness, gentleness, and intellectual honesty. His lectures were extraordinary efforts at organization and research. He threw himself into the analysis of others’ ideas with great generosity and enthusiasm, and he often gave more time to working out others’ theories than they had devoted to originating them. The achievements of his students and colleagues were a source of great delight to him. He had, in Roman Jakobson’s term, a “noble tenderness” for the ideas of others. There was a quality in Weinreich which reached the affections of others even before they were aware of it. There were times when we could observe in him a conflict between affection for his friends and his own intellectual honesty; we were all astonished that he was able to find solutions which compromised nothing on either principle.

One measure of Weinreich’s influence was the general esteem in which his opinions were held in the field of linguistics. There was a special recognition of Weinreich’s name that guaranteed a hearing in any association of linguists; to have been Weinreich’s student and worked with him added considerably to the pleasures of life; and for more than a few, his death brought the awareness of an irreplaceable loss. When I traveled to give talks in other parts of the country, still relatively unknown myself, a special look of respect always accompanied the mention of his name. Yakov Malkiel, in a 1967 obituary, commented on this quality of Weinreich as it was manifest in his review of Hockett’s Course in Modern Linguistics (Weinreich 1959/1960):

… The search for independence, so characteristic of the gropings of our times, must be severely qualified with reference to Weinreich: under no circumstances did he stoop to the pose of an ‘Originalgenie’ contemptuous of the production of his seniors or of his peers … Inclined to compromise by temperament, superbly abreast of all relevant developments on a global scale, he could nevertheless assert with impressive strength his personal initiative and his private scale of values (Malkiel 1967:606).

The Creation of Empirical Foundations [ef]

Uriel Weinreich’s impact on the field of linguistics is implemented most strongly in the article that is the main subject of this article: “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change.” It is the work of three authors: Weinreich, myself, and Marvin (Mikhl) Herzog. It was first conceived during the academic year 1965–66, when Weinreich was at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto; Herzog was directing Weinreich’s lcaaj project at Columbia, and I was teaching at Columbia and engaged in research in Harlem. Fortunately, my files have retained carbon copies of detailed, single-spaced letters between Weinreich and myself which provide an unusually complete record of the genesis and development of ef and a key to Weinreich’s thinking.

When he first arrived at the Center, Weinreich hoped to devote most of his time to matters of general semantic theory. But in October, he wrote:

Had I been master of my own fate, I would have had three days a week left for semantics, but as chance would have it, yivo has just raised the money necessary to publish my English and Yiddish dictionary. At last I’ve gotten around to Frege in the rough, and also getting around to the Oxford philosophers. Austin’s “A Plea for Excuses” is just great, and must have been one of Chomsky’s major inspirations.

He engaged in discussion of semantics with two European linguists but found little common ground:

They have definitely not shared with us the linguistic revolution since 1957 and they are here not only from other countries, but from another age. I find myself on the defensive about the new linguistics—another American fad? I honestly don’t think so, but can I convince them? Also, ought I to? Then I’ll have two converts on my hands and I’ll have to start cooling them off.

On January 6, 1966, Weinreich received an invitation from Yakov Malkiel and Winfred Lehmann to participate in a Texas conference in April of that year on “the universals of linguistic change on a high level of abstraction and with universal attention to particular languages.” They argued that such a conference “would rejuvenate the genetic foundations of historical linguistics.” They would welcome from Weinreich a paper “on the methodological implications of dialect study.” Weinreich immediately called Malkiel, who had shown himself sympathetic to the application of dialect data to general historical issues.

Weinreich wanted to know if the conference would provide a framework broad enough to accommodate his general approach to language change. Malkiel was here a positive and sympathetic factor and deserves as much credit as anyone for the appearance of the paper. Uriel wrote to Lehmann on January 23rd, summing up his position in words somewhat more forceful than those he would use in public:

I feel that I do have a distinctive approach to questions of linguistic change, different from (and, hopefully, more correct) than the Neogrammarian view which dominates descriptivists, the sociolinguistically naïve approach of Martinet’s people and the sterile superformalistic threats that rumble forth from mit.

Weinreich worried that the short time span would not permit a substantial publication: “I seriously doubt that the conference as now planned can come up with anything worth publishing as a volume on a single topic,” and proposed a postponement of the conference to 1967. But he had an alternate proposition:

If, however, the meeting is fated to take place as you have already scheduled it, then the only way I could manage in time to prepare material that would substantiate my approach would be to invite two of my associates who have been actively testing out this approach and whose evidence and theoretical thinking has influenced me most deeply over the past few years.

He added that he had already asked Mikhl Herzog and me to join in a three-pronged presentation of a joint position. Uriel then wrote to us on the 25th:

Anticipating Lehmann’s capitulation to my bluster—i.e., his acceptance of the three-man paper rather than a postponement of the conference—we’d better have a title ready … I was toying with something like “Linguistic Change: Stimuli and Constraints From Structure and Society.” But it might be advisable to get “empirical” into the title, because our interest in living evidence is perhaps as distinctive as anything else in our work.

On January 31st, I responded that “stimuli has an awkward sound, with its Latin plural and its psychological connotations” and suggested the title “Empirical Foundations for the Theory of Linguistic Change.” In my letter, I wondered whether “this implied a data-gathering orientation or rather the balance between inductive and deductive reasoning that we aim for.” The foundations that I had in mind were

the structural considerations raised by Martinet and developed by you in the 50s; the historical-geographic arguments developed in the Atlas materials; the generalizations on directions and constraints on linguistic change that you and Mikhl have been observing in Atlas data; the demonstration of social influence in my work.

Uriel answered on February 5th that “I was hoping myself to get empirical into the title.” He made the significant change of “the theory” to “a theory,” and proposed the three-part structure that was finally adopted:

  1. Heterogeneous language as an object of linguistic research—U.W.
  2. with special reference to New York City English—W.L.
  3. the differential diffusability of innovations, with special reference to Yiddish dialectology—M.I.H.

During this period, there was considerable discussion of political disagreement with the officers of the Linguistic Circle of New York, who had taken over the direction of Word. We finally decided to withdraw from this controversy, to devote the most time and energy to linguistic research. We also discussed the possibility of replacing the current introductory text of H.A. Gleason with one that Weinreich might write, along with workbooks by myself and Herzog. My letter of February 10th argued the case against this idea:

No matter how I look at it, it seems to me questionable whether linguistics would gain enough in the long run to warrant your spending one—two—God knows how many years in the toils of this project. It would interfere with your Atlas work, and your semantics project, at a very critical time, it seems to me. Perhaps I am prejudiced in favor of the priority of original research, but I do not think that your teaching ability should be allowed to take the center of the stage for so long. There is always the possibility that the textbook would embody enough theoretical innovation or consolidation to go beyond teaching, but I think you would be more apt to subordinate your point of view than to project it, as Bloomfield did [project his].

The textbook project did not survive, and so the deck was cleared for the general statement of Weinreich’s approach to linguistics in “Empirical Foundations.” The paper was delivered at the Texas conference in April, and when Weinreich returned to Columbia in the fall of 1966 it was revised as described in its opening paragraphs.

Uriel had suffered an attack of cancer of the lymph nodes some years previously. It was cured, but recurred in the form of a malignant cancer of the brain not long after he came back to New York. He informed us that his life expectancy was no more than six months. In the months that followed, until shortly before his death on March 30, 1967, he devoted himself to revising ef, rewriting the first and last sections.

What Are the Empirical Foundations?

In the simplest and most direct sense, the empirical foundations referred to in the title were the two dissertations of Weinreich’s students. Herzog’s study of the dialect geography of northern Poland gave strong empirical confirmation to the theoretical constraint that vowel mergers are unidirectional and irreversible (Herzog 1965). My study of (r) in New York City showed that this change from above was tightly correlated with social class and attention paid to speech. And, as Weinreich pointed out in his letter of April 5th, both studies showed that “linguistic change is eminently observable.”

Readers of this issue may be aware that another of those foundations has been indeed completed as Weinreich would have wished. Largely under the direction of Mikhl Herzog, the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (lcaaj) was brought to completion in a definitive, elegant, and admirable form in 1992, and the eydes archive was made available in 2008. I have had the pleasure of using the lcaaj in teaching my course on Dialect Geography over the years. I have also created and brought to completion an Atlas myself—the Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change (Labov, Ash, & Boberg 2006)—and developed the empirical foundations of the theory of language change in three volumes (Labov 1994, 2001, 2010). In the years that followed, many linguists have built on these foundations, as can be seen in conferences and journals devoted to the study of linguistic variation and change in progress: 45 years of the nwav conference, 30 years of Language Variation and Change, 21 years of the Journal of Sociolinguistics, 40 years of Language in Society, and most recently 4 years of the Journal of Linguistic Geography. The appendix to the second edition of The Social Stratification of English in New York City (2006) listed 31 major studies that had followed a similar pattern of tracing change and variation across the community. New journals dealing with linguistic variation appear regularly (e.g., Linguistic Variation, Asia-Pacific Language Variation). The American Scholar listing for the original “Empirical Foundations” article shows 2,582 citations.

As the sole survivor of the three authors, I can say that much of the program laid out by Weinreich has been accomplished. A paradigmatic shift introduced by ef is in the position of variation in the field of linguistics. It is not that variation was ignored: it has always been the central problem of linguistic analysis. The problem was solved traditionally by discovering a rule of complementary distribution that would successfully specify where and when each form would appear and so eliminate the variation. Although such invariant rules are still recognized and much sought after, the process of linguistic analysis no longer comes to an end if they are not found.

Thus, the paradigmatic shift introduced by ef has led to a radical change in the status of variation in linguistics. What was originally a tool used only by sociolinguists has become a general resource for historical linguists, syntacticians, and morphologists. The search for features of Universal Grammar by definition remains aloof from the study of variation. But that larger enterprise that considers all features of language that can, might, or have changed is now deeply engaged in the study of variation. A wide range of quantitative methods are now used in the analysis of all those aspects of language which can and do change.

Variable Rules

ef introduced a notation for variable rules which was further developed in the study of contraction and deletion in African-American Vernacular English (Labov 1969). Thus, the social stratification of /r/ in New York City might be represented as

There is at present no consensus on how to incorporate quantitative information into a formal representation of phonology or grammar, as the form of the qualitative rules varies widely. Rules themselves are often replaced by constraints, which accept a different type of numerical modification (Anttila 1997; Bermúdez-Otero 2007). There is also no measure of agreement on how multivariate analyses might be incorporated into a grammar, although some progress has been made on what variables might be excluded (Tamminga 2016). Most multivariate studies firmly separate social and linguistic information (Sankoff & Labov 1979; Kroch 1989), and experimental data points to the existence of a separate sociolinguistic monitor (Labov et al. 2011). But we can note a growing agreement that sociolinguistically defined variation is an essential aspect of linguistic change as it moves through the speech community.

The Isolation of the Idiolect

A central theme of ef is that language is a property of the speech community, not the individual. Weinreich’s study of Hermann Paul brought home the close connection between the Neogrammarian position and the current generative view. Paul thought that the isolation of the idiolect would have the advantage of attaching language to the science of psychology. Weinreich brought home the close connection between Paul’s conception of the idiolect and Chomsky’s attachment of grammar to the ideal speaker/hearer, which has now emerged as I-language. In Weinreich’s view, this was a limitation of the generative framework which must be overcome if it is to be applied to a broader understanding of the human faculty of language. In this spirit, I have put forward what may be called the Central Dogma of Sociolinguistics (Labov 2010):

  1. The community is conceptually and analytically prior to the individual.
  2. In linguistic analysis, the system of an individual can be understood only through the study of the social groups of which he or she is a member.

The Five Problems of Language Change

Perhaps the most frequent citations from ef, and with the most influence on the design of research on linguistic change, are the final summations of the five problems of linguistic change (section 3.4). A few notes on each may serve to indicate how Weinreich’s insights have continued to direct the flow of research in this area.

The Constraints Problem: to determine the set of possible changes and possible conditions for change. Considerable progress has been made on the constraints governing chain shifts in vowel systems (Labov 1994), on the question as to whether mergers can be reversed (Garde 1961; Baranowski 2007). There is good evidence that the conditioning factors for syntactic change remain constant over the lifespan of the change, and that this may extend to phonology (Kroch 1989).

The Transition Problem: how language moves from one stage to another. In recent studies of the transmission of change in progress within the community, it has been found that children reject the dialect of their parents if it differs from that of their peers, and that change is transmitted as adolescents acquire the forms used by the most relevant older peers (Payne 1980; Kerswill & Williams 2000). Changes in progress show a peak in the adolescent years (Labov 2001; Tagliamonte & D’Arcy 2009).

A second aspect of the transition problem concerns the regularity of sound change. The Neogrammarian position on this issue has been challenged by a number of studies of lexical diffusion (Wang 1969; Ogura 1987; Phillips 1981), but other studies support their position that the unit of change is the phoneme.

The Embedding Problem:

  1. to determine the degree of embedding in the linguistic structure. Studies of changing systems support the ef statement that we normally find a limited set of variables in the system shifting their modal values gradually from one pole to another. But recent fine-grained studies of sound change in the community indicate that some changes may be triggered by sudden changes in the phonological rules (Fruehwald 2013).
  2. to determine the degree of social correlation with elements of the change, and how it bears upon the abstract linguistic system. Studies following the New York City study confirmed that change from below originates in a centrally located group (a curvilinear pattern) and spreads outward to social groups at the upper and lower ends of the social spectrum (Labov 2001).

The Evaluation Problem: to determine the level of social awareness of a linguistic change. Matched guise tests have found that most linguistic changes within the community are not overtly evaluated in their early stages, but ethnographic studies show that they may be correlated closely with membership in local social networks and communities of practice (Eckert 2000).

The Actuation Problem: to determine why and when a linguistic change happens at a particular time or place. The actuation problem or “riddle” is not generally considered soluble. But ef suggests that it begins when one of the many features characteristic of speech variation spreads throughout a specific subgroup of the speech community, assuming a certain social significance—symbolizing the social values associated with that group, and it is gradually generalized to other members of the group. New groups enter the speech community and reinterpret the ongoing linguistic change in such a way that one of the secondary changes becomes primary.

Among the various efforts to solve the actuation problem, it has been suggested that the great rotation of five vowels that define the Northern Cities Shift was initiated by the construction of the Erie Canal in 1817–25, which brought together various populations of New Englanders with diverse short-a systems, leading to the formation of a koine in which all short-a moved to front position. This led to the fronting of short-o, and the three other changes that followed to complete the Northern Cities Shift (Labov, Ash, & Boberg 2006).

Postnote

For readers of this article who have not yet entered on a path of linguistic studies but are considering it, I wish you an equal good fortune in your choice of mentors. For others, I hope that this short article will reinforce what you have heard about this extraordinary product of the secular Jewish tradition, who died so young and left us so many products of his restless and ingenious mind.

References

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William Labov

Professor of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, is considered the founder of variationist sociolinguistics. In his c. 60 years at the forefront of the study of linguistic variation, he has pioneered work on the relation between synchronic variation and linguistic change. His numerous publications include Principles of Linguistic Change (three volumes: 1994, 2001, 2010) and, with Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg, Atlas of North American English: Phonology and Sound Change (2006).

1

[Editor’s note (ilb): In standard Yiddish, this sentence would be rendered: ikh bin geboyrn gevorn ‘I was born.’ Differences include the use of the past tense auxiliary verb zayn ‘to be’ (bin ‘am’) rather than hobn ‘to have,’ the use of the variant of the participle geboyrn rather than geborn ‘born,’ and the addition of an overt passive auxiliary vern ‘to become.’ All three non-standard features are characteristic of colloquial Lithuanian Yiddish.]

  • Anttila, Arto. 1997. “Deriving Variation from Grammar.” In Variation, Change and Phonological Theory, eds. Frans L. Hinskens, Roeland van Hout, & W. Leo Wetzels. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins, 3568.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Baranowski, Maciej. 2007. Phonological Variation and Change in the Dialect of Charleston, South Carolina. Publication of the American Dialect Society 92. Durham: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo. 2007. “Diachronic Phonology.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Phonology, ed. Paul de Lacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 497517.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eckert, Penelope. 2000. Linguistic Variation as Social Practice: The Linguistic Construction of Identity in Belten High. Oxford: Blackwell.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fruehwald, Josef. 2013. The Phonological Influence on Phonetic Change. Doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

  • Garde, Paul. 1961. “Réflexions sur les différences phonétiques entre les langues slaves.” Word 17: 3462.

  • Herzog, Marvin I. 1965. The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History. Bloomington & The Hague: Indiana University & Mouton (= International Journal of American Linguistics 31.2, Part 3).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kerswill, Paul & Ann Williams. 2000. “Creating a New Town Koine: Children and Language Change in Milton Keynes.” Language in Society 29.1: 65116.

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