Lexicon Valley on R-Dropping and the Phenomenon of “Prestige Borrowing”

A show about the mysteries of English.
Jan. 17 2013 4:13 PM

Q, Awe, S

What R-dropping can tell us about New Yorkers, Part 1.

Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 25: The Fawth Flaw

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Mickey—played by Woody Allen—obsesses after a doctor’s appointment over what he’s convinced must be “a tumor in my head the size of a basketball.” Oh, it’s in his head all right, but never mind. Go ahead and say the word tumor out loud, making sure to conjure your best Woody Allen impression. I bet it sounded more like too-muh. That’s because native New Yorkers tend to drop their Rs, a phenomenon known to linguists as non-rhoticity and common to a number of English accents both in America and abroad. Listen to Bob Garfield and me, in the first of a two-part episode, discuss a longitudinal study of R-dropping in Manhattan department stores.

You can also read the transcript of this episode below.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode at slate.com/lexiconvalley, or in the player below:

Send your thoughts about the show to slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

BOB: From Washington, D.C. this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m Bob Garfield with Mike Vuolo and today episode No. 25, titled “The Fawth Flaw,” wherein we discuss a defining feature of the New York accent.

[Discussion of the response to Episode No. 24: Get Your Creak On]

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MIKE: Okay, today's episode. In the late 19th century a professor, Bob, at Columbia College named Eugene Babbitt, over the course of about six years, took extensive notes on the way native New Yorkers talk, just by observing them. Babbitt was a member of the American Dialect Society and published some volumes of what he called "Dialect Notes." He wrote, "The guards on the elevated roads, the tradespeople, some of my students, the servants in my kitchen and those of my friends, the newsboys, hawkers, and ‘barkers,’ the school-children in school and out, have all contributed material." And one of the things that all of these New Yorkers had in common, he noted, was that the letter R—especially when it occurs at the very end of a word, although also in the middle—is frequently not pronounced. He wrote, "When final the r often entirely disappears, so that ... [the word] four," F-O-U-R, "rhymes with law," L-A-W.

BOB: Uh, yeah. Any self-respecting New Yorker doesn't say the word "four." He says "faw."

MIKE: [laughing] And you, Bob, being neither a New Yorker nor self-respecting didn't quite say it, I think, with the authenticity I heard growing up.

BOB: [laughing] Sorry, sorry. All right, so among my many non-skills is mimicry.

MIKE: And this tendency to drops Rs, of course, is not exclusive to New York. It's common to a number of otherwise very different accents up and down the entire East Coast of America. In New England, and in particular Boston, in New York City, in South Carolina—there's rampant R-lessness in all of these regions, right?

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: And the thinking is that this phenomenon evolved out of the tendency of some English people, specifically South Londoners, to drop their Rs as far back as the 16- and 1700s, precisely when many English were coming here and settling on the East Coast. Now, your rendition of a New York accent, Bob, notwithstanding, and on the off-chance that some listeners are not familiar with this, let's give a much better example. Who is—and I have not verified that you know the answer to this question but I'm guessing that you do—who is Rhoda Morgenstern?

BOB: Uh, that was the Valerie Harper character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was her New York friend.

MIKE: Yeah, she was. And a few years into the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda's character was spun off. Rhoda leaves the Minneapolis of the Mary Tyler Moore Show and moves back to "New Yawk":

RHODA THEME:

VALERIE HARPER as RHODA: My name is Rhoda Morgenstern. I was born in the Bronx, New York in December, 1941. I've always felt responsible for World War II. The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food. I had a bad puberty. It lasted seventeen years. I'm a high school graduate. I went to art school—my entrance exam was on a book of matches. I decided to move out of the house when I was 24. My mother still refers to this as the time I ran away from home. Eventually I ran to Minneapolis where it's cold, and I figured I'd keep better. Now I'm back in Manhattan. New York, this is your last chance."

MIKE: All right. Now let's focus for a moment on the phrase "born in the Bronx ... in December." As I alluded to earlier, there are two places where an r is most likely to disappear. One is at the very end of a word, right? Rhoda doesn't say "December."

BOB: No, she says "Decemba."

MIKE: [laughing] You really are bad at that.

BOB: [laughing] But you know what? I can parallel park like nobody's business and I can open any jar with simple wrist action, so it's not like I have no skills. It's just, you know, I can't do the New York accent.

MIKE: The other place where the r is most likely to disappear is in the middle of a word when it's preceded by a vowel and followed by a consonant. You wanna give it a shot? Rhoda doesn't say "born."

BOB: No, she says—uh, here we go again—"bawn."

MIKE: Very nice. Now, with just about every topic we talk about on this podcast, we could probably do 50 shows on the letter r and, you know, maybe 10 or 20 of those on the phenomenon of dropping ones Rs. But for the remainder of this episode and the next one I wanna focus on a kind of longitudinal study of r-dropping in New York. First, though, let's take a break here and talk about our sponsor Audible.com.

[AD BREAK]

MIKE: Let's, Bob, forget about language for a moment. In the early 1950s, a sociologist named C. Wright Mills published a book called White Collar. It was about the American middle classes. He suggested in this book that middle class people in particular, when they come into contact with people of a somewhat higher class or higher status, they will "borrow prestige" from them. That's the phrase he used.

BOB: Uh, yeah, that scans. I mean I think that's the entire business model of the Ralph Lauren empire, right?

MIKE: [laughing] Yeah, I think you're probably right. Mills wrote, "The tendency of white collar people to borrow status from higher elements is so strong that it has carried over to all social contacts and features of the work-place." He then went on to name a specific workplace: Department stores. He said that salespeople "frequently attempt ... to borrow prestige from their contact with customers." And that a salesperson "who works on 34th Street cannot successfully claim as much prestige as the one who works on Fifth Avenue." Now, about a decade later, in the early 1960s, a man who is now known as one of the founders really of modern sociolinguistics, William Labov, wondered whether this borrowing of prestige—by department store employees, for example—might be evidenced in language.

BOB: So, like the haughty maître d' or the floor walker at Saks Fifth Avenue. Because the people you're catering to are high-toned and affluent, you draw power from that.

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. You draw power. You draw dignity. You draw prestige, as Mills would say. So, here is what William Labov did in attempting to sort of ferret out whether there was a kind of linguistic analogue here. He identified three department stores that were "clearly stratified," as he put it, which is perhaps a delicate way of saying they have different kinds of customers. First, Saks Fifth Avenue at the high end. Macy's in Herald Square in the middle. And at the low end a discount department store on 14th Street called S. Klein, which is no longer around. These stores, as he points out, advertised very differently in newspapers at the time, for example. Saks could be found in the New York Times and not at all in the Daily News. Macy's advertised quite a bit in both papers, S. Klein almost exclusively in the Daily News. They were also priced differently of course. For example, women's dresses ran about $15 dollars in Macy's at the time, about $5 at S. Klein. He wrote, "Saks is the most spacious ... with the least amount of goods displayed. Many of the floors are carpeted, and on some of them, a receptionist is stationed to greet customers. Klein, at the other extreme, is a maze of annexes, sloping concrete floors [and] low ceilings; it has the maximum amount of goods displayed at the least possible expense." You know, Bob, when I was kid one of my favorite TV shows was “All in the Family.” Edith Bunker shopped at S. Klein.

BOB: [laughing] Oh, I'll bet she did. S. Klein is gone but it's counterparts exist still today, right ...

MIKE: Sure.

BOB: ... in lower Manhattan. These warrens of annexes and with clothes just essentially dumped onto countertops.

MIKE: Yeah, and you know on a personal note, S. Klein opened in 1921, which is the year that one of my grandmothers arrived in this country at Ellis Island and she lived for a time on the Lower East Side. And in my sort of poetic re-imagining of that year she may have bumped into Edith Bunker at the store there. Of course, they probably wouldn't have been able to say anything to each other. My grandmother didn't speak any English when she arrived and I don't think Edith Bunker spoke Yiddish.

BOB: Yeah, nor did Edith Bunker, what do call it, exist.

MIKE: [laughing] Hey, I said poetic, right?

BOB: Okay, Saks, Macy's, S. Klein, with you so far.

MIKE: Okay, now there's this principle in physics called the observer effect, which states that the act of observing something necessarily changes it. The sort of classic example of this is checking the pressure in your tire, right? To do that you have to let air out of the tire. Observing the pressure changes the pressure. This is an idea that linguists are very sensitive to. In other words, William Labov could have gone into these department stores, rounded up the employees and sat them down for recorded interviews in order to analyze some characteristic of their speech. But being interviewed by a stranger off the street is really awkward and would very likely affect the way you talk. So he came up with a solution, what he called a "rapid and anonymous" interaction, one that occurred, as he put it, "almost below the level of conscious attention."

BOB: What are you talking about, stealth sociology?

MIKE: In a sense that's exactly what I'm talking about. So he would walk up to an employee, ask them a brief question in order to elicit a brief answer - a phrase - and he would ask them all the same question to elicit the same phrase. The phrase he chose was "fourth floor."

BOB: [laughing] Yeah, I guess it's not hard to get someone to say those words in a department store.

MIKE: No and ...

BOB: Fawth flaw! Spawtsweah!

MIKE: Yeah, so you see where he's going here, right? The phrase contains the two kinds of r's that are most likely to be dropped. The r in "fourth" is in the middle, preceded by a vowel and followed by a consonant sound. In this case it's a dental fricative—th. The R in "floor" is at the end of the word.

BOB: Now I have asserted that it should be easy to get people in a department store to utter "fourth floor." But actually how did he get people to utter "fourth floor"? And was he holding a tape recorder when he did it?

MIKE: No he wasn't. That would invalidate the "anonymous" part of the "rapid and anonymous" and people would be focusing on the tape recorder.

BOB: And induce the observer effect.

MIKE: Exactly. No, what he did was if he was not on the fourth floor he would say, "Can you tell me where women's shoes are?" If he was on the fourth floor he would say, "Can you tell me what floor we're on?" Incidentally, he would say "floor." He points out that he himself pronounces his Rs. And so he spoke as he normally would and dressed as he normally would. And after the employee would respond he would lean in and say, "Excuse me?," pretending he didn't hear them so that they would repeat it. And in the three stores combined he did this with more than 250 employees.

BOB: This is fascinating Mike, and I'm having trouble getting my head around this because ... this took place in what year?

MIKE: 1962.

BOB: Yeah, well, 60 years later I cannot even comprehend a department store with in excess of 80 visible employees. Uh, but anyway, what did he discover.

MIKE: Well, I will tell you in the next episode.

BOB: What, this is a cliffhanger?

MIKE: Yeah, I mentioned before that this was gonna be a two-parter and so I think this is a good place for us to stop.

BOB: All right, well throw us a bone here Mike. Give us a sneak preview of something we're going to learn in the dramatic conclusion to make our audience, and me, come back.

MIKE: Okay, fair enough. And, you know, this is not rehearsed. We didn't plan this. But I will tell you something. I referred to this as a kind of longitudinal study, which implies that you follow the same people over a long period of time—like Michael Apted does in the “Up” series of movies. I said a "kind of" longitudinal study because a linguist repeated this precise study sort of retracing Labov's steps in the 1980s and then another linguist did it again just a few years ago. What Labov found and what they found we'll talk about in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you wanna write to us about dropping Rs or anything else you can do so at slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

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