Bill Labov

One of the cooler academics out there is a dope dude by the name of Bill Labov.  While other academics were going to remote pockets of the Amazon to figure out phonological shifts and other stuffs that nobody’s checking for, Bill Labov was doing some of the most important sociolinguistic work in America, fighting for a change in how people thought about language.  In 1971, he wrote a column in the The Atlantic and showed that, if we strip the everyday dialog of some middle-class and lower-class subjects to it’s bare-bone ideas, the bias we have to verbose language and stuff would show.

He talked to two subjects: Larry (lower-class black dude) and Chas  (middle-class black dude).  The questions were framed around mystic beliefs and their answers were recorded.

JL: What happens to you after you die? Do you know?

LARRY: Yeah, I know. (What?) After they put you in the ground, your body turns into–ah–bones, an’ shit.

JL: What happens to your spirit?

LARRY: Your spirit–soon as you die, your spirit leaves you. (And where does the spirit go?) Well, it all depends. (On what?) You know, like some people say if you re good an’ shit, your spirit goin’ t’heaven…’n’ if you bad, your spirit goin’ to hell. Well, bullshit! Your spirit goin’ to hell anyway, good or bad.

JL: Why?

LARRY: Why? I’ll tell you why. Cause. you see, doesn’ nobody really know that it’s a God, y’know. ’cause, I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods, all color gods. and don t nobody know it’s really a God. An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, thas bullshit. ’cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven, ’cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to.

When Larry gets called out for saying there’s no heaven even though there’s a hell, he tap dances around it quickly and without hesitation:

JL: Well, if there’s no heaven, how could there be a hell?

LARRY: I mean–ye-eah. Well, let me tell you, it ain’t no hell, ’cause this is hell right here, y’know! (This is hell?) Yeah, this is hell right here!

When Chas is interviewed, he qualifies all his statements and manages to say very little:

CR: Do you know of anything that someone can do, to have someone who has passed on visit him in a dream?

CHAS: Well, I even heard my parents say that there is such a thing as something in dreams, some things like that, and sometimes dreams do come true. I have personally never had a dream come true. I’ve never dreamt that somebody was dying and they actually died (Mhm), or that I was going to have ten dollars the next day and somehow I got ten dollars in my pocket. (Mhm.) I don’t particularly believe in that, I don’t think it’s true. I do feel, though, that there is such a thing as–ah–witchcraft. I do feel that in certain cultures there is such a thing as witchcraft, or some sort of science of witchcraft; I don’t think that it’s just a matter of believing hard enough that there is such a thing as witchcraft. I do believe that there is such a thing that a person can put himself in a state of mind (Mhm), or that–er–something could be given them to intoxicate them in a certain–to a certain frame of mind–that–that could actually be considered witchcraft.

I ran both their passages through my race classification tool and Chas scored way higher on the ‘white’ side than Larry.

Subject Black Score White Score
Larry 0.33 0.26
Chas 0.65 26.28

While Larry’s scores don’t indicate much, Chas’ high ‘white’ score indicates that the rap database as a baseline for verbose middle-class language is a good one. So while the rap database isn’t so good as a corpus for regular speech from lower-class (black) citizens, the ‘white’ scores work pretty well. Obviously we need way more data to say so but it’s a good enough start.

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