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Labov, Martha's Vineyard



Martha's Vineyard is an island lying about 3 miles off New England on the East Coast of the United States of America, with a permanent population of about 6000. However, much to the disgust of a number of locals, over 40,000 visitors, known somewhat disparagingly as the 'summer people' flood in every summer.

The eastern part of the island is more densely populated by the permanent residents, and is the area mostly visited by the summer visitors, who have bought up almost the entire north-east shore. This heavily populated end of the island is generally referred to as Down-island. The western third of the island, where most of the original inhabitants of the island live, is known as Up-island. It is strictly rural, with a few villages and salt ponds, marshes, and uninhabited pine barrens. One area of Up-island is an area known as Chilmark, which formed the centre of the island's fishing activities, having once been a prosperous centre of the whaling industry.

Of the 2.5 per cent of the population still involved in the fishing industry, most lived in the Chilmark area. The Chilmark fishermen formed the most close-knit social group on the island and the group most opposed to the incursions of the summer people. The fishermen were viewed by other islanders as independent, skilful, physically strong, courageous. They epitomised the good old Yankee virtues, as opposed to the indolent consumer-oriented society of the summer visitors.

In his study, Labov focused on realisations of the diphthongs [aw] and [ay] (as in mouse and mice). He interviewed a number of speakers drawn from different ages and ethnic groups on the island, and noted that among the younger (31-45 years) speakers a movement seemed to be taking place away from the pronunciations associated with the standard New England norms, and towards a pronunciation associated with conservative and characteristically Vineyard speakers, notably the Chilmark fishermen. The heaviest users of this type of pronunciation were young men who actively sought to identify themselves as Vineyarders, rejected the values of the mainland, and resented the encroachment of wealthy summer visitors on the traditional island way of life. Thus, these speakers seem to be exploiting the resources of the non-standard dialect. The pattern emerged despite extensive exposure of speakers to the educational system; some college educated boys from Martha's Vineyard were extremely heavy users of the vernacular vowels.

To summarise: On Martha's Vineyard a small group of fishermen began to exaggerate a tendency already existing in their speech. They did this seemingly subconsciously, in order to establish themselves as an independent social group with superior status to the despised summer visitors. A number of other islanders regarded this group as one which epitomised old virtues and desirable values, and subconsciously imitated the way its members talked. For these people, 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.