November 07, 2005

Tawk of the Town

In the 11/14/2005 issue of the New Yorker, John Seabrook has a Talk of the Town piece (titled "Talking the Tawk") that begins

Professor William Labov is to American dialect what Lewis and Clark are to American geography.

The occasion is the launch of The Atlas of North American English, which Bill Labov and others (especially Sherry Ash and Charles Boberg) have been working on for the past decade. More on this later -- for now, just go read what Seabrook has to say!

Well, I'll add one small thing. When I first put in the Seabrook quote, I thought that the singular "American dialect" must be a typo. But no, I got it by cut-and-paste, and there it is in the first sentence in the magazine, singular as can be. I guess it's being treated as a strange kind of mass noun, sort of like talking about "American film".

I'm not used to seeing dialect used that way -- for me, Seabrook's sentence is like "Francis Ford Coppola is to American movie what X is to Y..." The many other uses of dialect in Seabrook's article are all either plural ("the speakers of Southern dialects"), specifically singular ("the Inland North dialect") or internal to complex nominals ("the most extreme dialect change in the country").

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 7, 2005 05:00 PM