Issue 1 |

Labov and the R

by on November 14, 2014

Seeing as this is the first issue of Unravel, it might be befitting to answer the pertinent question of what a linguist does. While I constantly joke about how a linguist might possibly be someone who’s good at eating linguine—though the two are definitely not mutually exclusive—or we are often dismissed as translators, it wouldn’t do us, linguists, justice to say that we simply examine language. How many of us can name a famous linguist offhand anyway? While the philosophers have Aristotle, the sociologists have Karl Marx, the economists have Adam Smith, and our poetry-loving cousins have William Shakespeare, we have another William at hand—William Labov.

Now, read the first line of this article aloud. How did you pronounce ‘first’? Did you say it as /fəːst/ like the ‘fast’ in ‘breakfast’ or did you say it as /fərst/ with the /r/ emphasised? Believe it or not, your social background would probably have predicted your choice of pronunciation. Now try “party harder”. Now that you have become conscious of the /r/s, it is unlikely that you would have dismissed its pronunciation this time around. The pronunciation of /r/ is a feature that varies widely across different English-speaking regions. In England, most people in the South do not pronounce the ‘r’ in words like ‘park’, while others in parts of the North and West do. The United States offers a similar variation. This pronunciation can also depend on the social class of the speaker. Likewise, as dialects change over time, patterns of the /r/ usage will change as well.

This was essentially the focus of William Labov’s 1966 linguistic experiment on the presence of rhoticity (pronunciation of the /r/ sound before pauses and consonants) in the speech of the New York City population. The now-eighty-six-year-old Labov famously conducted this particular experiment in three different department stores in New York City—Saks, Macy’s and the now-defunct S. Klein—each patronised by a distinct social class of people. In a bid to analyse differences in the speech patterns of people from different social classes, he carried out what is known as a ‘rapid anonymous survey’. He went up to random salespersons at each store and asked, “Excuse me, where are the women’s shoes?” or “Excuse me, what floor is this?” Both questions were expected to yield the reply of “fourth floor”. He would then ask them to repeat their answer to observe if there was any change in rhoticity. The idea was for the question to be casual and anonymous, so that the informant would think that it was a normal salesman-customer interaction.

Indeed, a clear pattern was observed. It was seen that the staff at Saks, a higher-class store, were more likely to pronounce /r/, while employees at Macy’s and S. Klein were more likely to omit the /r/. The request to repeat the response confirmed that an emphatic repetition tended towards the yielding of the /r/ pronunciation. Aside from the apparent socioeconomic class differentiation, age also played a part in this difference: Younger speakers favoured rhoticity whereas the older generation had a preference for the r-less pronunciation. Labov’s observation of this age difference proved influential in the development of the ‘apparent time’ method of studying language change. As individuals do not change their speech very much as they age, we can study younger and older speakers as a way of looking at language change in a community. In the case of /r/ and New York City, Labov’s department store study confirmed that the city was moving away from r-lessness and towards a more standard American English ‘r-fulness’.

Replications of Labov’s study were later carried out by other linguists in 1986 (Fowler) and again in 2009 (Mather). Their observations confirmed Labov’s predictions about language change in New York: over the five decades, there was an increase in the number of r-ful salespersons. Interestingly, this change primarily occurred in the upper- and middle-class stores, whereas hardly any difference was observed in the lower-class range of stores. These studies demonstrate that, even within a single profession, a range of factors, including social class, can influence the way we speak.

On a personal level and as a Singaporean, this research on New York City’s r-fulness is particularly interesting: recent studies by local linguists found that Singapore English is undergoing a very similar process. Younger Singaporeans are increasingly prone to pronouncing the /r/ sound. This pattern also correlates with a higher education and socioeconomic status. Thus, although Singapore English has historical connections to British English, which is largely r-less, these studies suggest that our local dialect is on its way to becoming rhotic.

In a way, then, Singapore English is at the same transitional point today that English in New York City was at when Labov conducted his study in 1966. Putting it in the local setting, performing this experiment on sales service staff at Louis Vuitton, Topman/Topshop and Giordano in Singapore are likely to produce the same results. Although we would expect to see a similar pattern in speech behaviour, it might not be that distinct in Singapore as we are a small, cosmopolitan country with vague geographically-defined communities.

With this sociolinguistic knowledge in mind, we are left to wonder what the fate of us ordering our ‘cha/r/ kway teow’ and ‘roasted po/r/k’ at our hawker centres might be. Or, with the notion of rhoticity becoming more prestigious, what about ‘pasta/r/’ for this linguine lover?

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