Lexicon Valley Reveals What We've Learned From Studies of R-Dropping in New York City Department Stores

A show about the mysteries of English.
Jan. 31 2013 11:03 AM

The Disappearing New Yawk Accent

Listen to Pt. 2 of Slate’s show about the fall and rise of rhoticity (pronouncing your R’s) in New York City English.

Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 26: The Fawth Flaw, Part II

R’s, especially those at the end of a word, were hard to come by in the Big Apple a century ago. Most New Yorkers went to the doctah and paid a visit to their mothah. Even the well-born 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was an inveterate R-dropper who spoke of terrah and feah in his famed first inaugural address. But listen closely now and you’ll notice that the long-ignored R has made a comeback in New York City (and in other traditional R-less regions of the United States). So are we destined to become one nation indivisible, with liberty and rhoticity for all? In the second of a two-part episode, listen as Bob Garfield and I discuss some sociolinguistic studies of R-dropping in New York.

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. 26 titled, “The Fawth Flaw, Part II,” wherein we continue our discussion of R-dropping and the New York accent.


MIKE: Here's a brief recap of where we left off. In the early 1950s a sociologist named C. Wright Mills observed that middle-class people, when they come into contact with those of a higher status, will, as he put it, "borrow prestige" from them. And an example he gave was that employees of an upscale department store will draw dignity and—power was I think the word that you used—self-worth from contact with the well-heeled clientele, right, more so than employees of a more downscale department store, whose clientele is presumably more déclassé.

BOB: Yeah, I think we used the example of the snooty maître d' but, you know, I think it also extends to people I deal with all the time—the desk assistants to powerful people ...

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: ... who just treat you horribly even though they're answering phones at $11,000-a-year. Because the boss is a big macher they treat every caller like dirt.

MIKE: So about a decade later, in the early 1960s, a linguist named William Labov wondered whether this prestige-borrowing extended to language, to the way we talk. And for a longer discussion of this, if you haven't already, listen to our previous episode. But in a nutshell, here's what he did. In Manhattan, he went into Saks Fifth Avenue, an upscale department store, Macy's, more middle-of-the-road, and S. Klein, a discount department store, and as inconspicuously as possible walked up to employees and asked them, for example, "Where are men's suits?" He was trying to get them to say the phrase "fourth floor." He would then lean in, say "Excuse me?" pretending he didn't hear them, so that they would repeat it. And across all three stores he did this with more than 250 employees.

BOB: OK and once again, he knew where the men's suits were but he was trying to get people to say the words "fourth floor" to see if they dropped the Rs and said "fawth flaw."

MIKE: Exactly. So, what did he find? Well, let's look at the percentage of employees in each store who were complete R-droppers. In other words, they pronounced "fourth" "fawth" and "floor" "flaw." And when he said excuse me they again dropped their Rs. At Saks it was 38 percent, at Macy's it was 49 percent and at S. Klein it was 79 percent.

BOB: [laughing] Pretty much playing to type in other words.

MIKE: Yeah, now it's hard to say whether this pattern exists because of prestige-borrowing or if some other factor might explain it, right? Perhaps the ultimate test would be to swap all of the employees from Saks and S. Klein, say, go back a month later and see if the former S. Klein, now-Saks, employees are borrowing prestige, in other words dropping fewer Rs. But, you know, for obvious reasons you can't do that. These are not lab mice. These are human beings. But what you can do is drill down further in the data. In addition to nothing whether or not each employee dropped their Rs, William Labov also noted their apparent race or ethnicity, their sex. He estimated their age. Things like that. So, let's look at the percentage of complete R-droppers among just African-Americans. At Macy's it was 53 percent. At S. Klein it was 94 percent. The number of African-American employees he ran into at Saks was just two, which is far too small a sample size to be meaningful, but you see at least with Macy's and S. Klein the patterns sustains.

BOB: Two black employees at Saks, huh? I don't know what it tells us about linguistics but it tells us a lot about the ’60s.

MIKE: [laughing] Sure does. Now let's look at the percentage of complete R-droppers among just white women, which is the largest subcategory of employees by both gender and race. At Saks it was 33 percent, at Macy's 41 percent, and at S. Klein 70 percent. So again, the pattern sustains.

BOB: I wonder Mike, and maybe I should have asked this earlier, we were discussing prestige-borrowing, but does this track actually with socioeconomics? Do the demographics of the employees at S. Klein match the customer base of S. Klein, and do the demographics of the Saks employees match that of the Saks customers? Is this a question of, for want of another word, sophistication?

MIKE: It's a good question, and that's one of the things that we don't know about the employees, but he did sort of drill down in a different way that might account for that. For example, he also did some comparisons among employees within the same store. He noticed that the ground floor of Saks was very Macy's-like in the amount of stuff displayed, the way it was displayed. And the upper floors were much fancier. They appeared to be, as he put it, "devoted to high fashion."

BOB: Ding. Seventh floor. Better dresses.

MIKE: [laughing] Were you an employee?

BOB: Uh, no, I was a little boy but somehow I have the image etched in my consciousness. Movies I would expect.

MIKE: Given what Labov observed, you might guess that there would be more prestige-borrowing taking place on those upper floors. And sure enough the percentage of employees on the combined upper floors who were complete R-droppers was only 26. On the ground floor it was 54 percent. That at least is using all of the employees from one store. And again, Labov admits that there's certain information we don't know that would be useful, like the education level of the employees, where more precisely they're from in New York. But nevertheless you see that even when you slice and dice the data into smaller subgroups, this social stratification of R-dropping is preserved, and prestige-borrowing almost certainly explains some of it. Now Labov kept track of something else that yielded a really interesting finding, and we'll talk about it in a minute. First, let's take a short break to mention our sponsor, Audible.com.

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MIKE: Okay, remember I mentioned that after William Labov got the employees at these various stores to say "fourth floor," he would get them to repeat it by pretending he didn't hear them. "Excuse me, can you tell me where to find dress shirts?"

BOB: "Fawth flaw."

MIKE: "I'm sorry, excuse me?"

BOB: "Whadda you deaf? I said FAWTH FLAW."

MIKE: [laughing] Now, of course there were a number of people who, like you, said "fawth flaw" both times. And there were people who said "fourth floor" both times. But there were a significant number of people in all three stores who sort of self-corrected. So at ...

BOB: Wait a second, wait a second. Let's go through this routine again. Ask me.

MIKE: "Excuse me, can you tell me where to find dress shirts?"

BOB: "Fawth flaw."

MIKE: "I'm sorry, excuse me?"

BOB: "Fourth floor. This way, please." What, what self-corrected. What?!

MIKE: [laughing] OK, so hear me out. At Macy's, the first time employees said the word floor, the R was produced 44 percent of the time. The second time they said floor, the R was produced 61 percent of the time, which is a pretty big jump.

BOB: What would account for this instantaneous self-consciousness? I don't get it.

MIKE: We'll get there. At S. Klein's it went from 8 percent to 18 percent. And a similar pattern occurred for the word fourth. At Saks, the first time fourth was said the R could be heard 30 percent of the time, and when they repeated fourth, it jumped to 40 percent. Now, if you think about it, you might come up with an explanation for that. Maybe you're just not capable of thinking about it.

BOB: [laughing] Wow. I know sometimes I'm walking down the street and I catch myself slumping and I'll throw my shoulders back very self-consciously 'cause it suddenly occurs to me. Is the second question a trigger to remind you to clean up your speech?

MIKE: In a way. What this means is that some number of employees in each of the stores, who would normally drop their R’s when speaking "casually," as Labov put it, will produce their R’s when speaking carefully or emphatically. In other words, at some level they're aware that producing the R is considered correct, and it's option for them, if not their first instinct. When you feel like you haven't been heard or haven't been understood, you tend to speak more carefully, and when you speak more carefully and emphatically, you speak in a way that you think is the most correct.

BOB: Mmm.

MIKE: This movement back and forth between dropping your R’s and not dropping your R’s depending on the situation—Labov came up with a term for it. He called it "linguistic insecurity." You could imagine that if enough New Yorkers were sufficiently insecure about dropping their R’s, and more and more started producing their R’s, that over time we could measure a change in the way New Yorkers talk.

BOB: Mmm. Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. OK, so over time. Now in our last episode you said that while Labov never repeated his experiments, subsequent generations of linguists did in later decades. So there's in effect a longitudinal view of this phenomenon. What did they come up with?

MIKE: That's right. I did say that. So in the mid-1980s a linguistics major at NYU named Joy Fowler repeated Labov's study. This is, you know, 23 years later. By this time, S. Klein had gone out of business so Fowler chose a different discount department store called Mays, which, like S. Klein, was also on Union Square. And Saks and Macy's of course were still in business, still in the same place. What she found was a pattern that was remarkably similar to Labov's. Employees at Saks produced the most R’s, then Macy's, and employees at Mays were a clear, distant third. However, the overall use of R went up in all three stores by an average of about 7 percent. In other words, New Yorkers, while they were still socially stratified in their use of R, it appeared that as a population they were becoming more R-ful.

BOB: R-ful? That's awful. That's an earful. R-ful?

MIKE: [laughing] They were producing more R’s.

BOB: Linguistic insecurity was taking hold in an entire metropolis.

MIKE: Twenty-three years after that, in 2009, another linguist named Patrick-André Mather repeated the study again. Now by this time Mays had closed down, so he substituted Filene's Basement and Loehmann's as the discount department store. And once again he found the same pattern of social stratification across the stores but with even more total R-production, an increase of about 15 percent over Labov's data.

BOB: Total R-production. [laughing] You know, thank God it hadn't moved offshore.

MIKE: [laughing] Yeah, they're outsourcing their R-dropping. Well you know, I could use the technical linguistic term, which is rhoticity. Using your R’s in linguistics is referred to as rhoticity. Dropping your R’s is referred to as nonrhoticity. And that's R-H-O, as in the Greek letter rho.

BOB: No, I know. I got a rhoticity on my grill. I never figured out how to install it though.

MIKE: [laughing] So let's back up for a moment. Let's back up 100 years to the early 1900s. As I mentioned in the last episode, parts of New England and New York and the South were at that time either largely or completely R-less in the ways that we're talking about, right. People would never produce those R’s at the ends of words. And that has to do with the way that those regions were settled during Colonial times and after by people from southern England, who were themselves largely R-droppers. Not only was R-dropping the norm in those regions of the U.S. at the time, but it had a kind of national prestige because England had a prestige. And you can hear it in the speech of a lot of patrician Americans of the time. Listen, Bob, to this excerpt from FDR's first inaugural address in 1933.

BOB: You don't even have to play the tape Mike. I know what it is. "We have nothing to feeah but feeah itself."

MIKE: Well, as good as that was I'm gonna play the tape anyway. Here it is.


This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.

MIKE: Terrah, prospah, enduah, feeah. The guy’s a total R-dropper. Now after World War II, as the influence and prestige of England began to decline here in America, so too did R-dropping. The prestige sort of flipped. In other words, producing your R’s became the more accepted, more prestigious way of speaking. So by the time William Labov did his department-store study in the early 1960s, New Yorkers were already much more R-ful than they were 20 years prior. And he predicted that this trend would continue.

BOB: Well, the two subsequent studies did seem to bear that out. Maybe by 2050 they'll be trilling, which is a sound I actually can't produce but I'll bet you can.

MIKE: You can't roll your R’s?

BOB: No, I have a speech impediment in about 40 languages.

MIKE: [laughing] Give it a shot. No, I don't wanna embarrass you.

BOB: [laughing] It's nothing I would want to inflict.

MIKE: OK. Well, I won't do it because I don't wanna make you feel inferior.

BOB: You don't have to trill an R to make me feel inferior. I feel preinferior for your convenience.

MIKE: Well, you know, as a kind of total tangent, Bob, in ancient Rome the letter R was known as the "canine letter." Shakespeare even has a reference to this. He calls it the "dog's" letter because the trilling of an R was thought to sound like the low growl of a dog. You know, like "rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr."

BOB: Oh, you did do it.

MIKE: I did. That's right.

BOB: I wish I could do that.

MIKE: So, Labov predicted that this trend would continue and he called it a "change from above." And I asked a linguist named Kara Becker—who is a professor at Reed College in Oregon and who has studied R-dropping—I asked her what he meant by that. Here's Becker.

KARA BECKER: A change from above is a change that speakers are aware of, right, so it’s above the level of consciousness. And R is really the classic example of a change from above. What that means is that New Yorkers were, and are, aware of the negative associations with R-dropping. They’re aware of the fact that other Americans produce their R’s in these same contexts. And they’re aware of the fact that producing R’s is now considered to be correct, is considered to be the norm in American English. And so as a result of being aware of that, they start to produce more and more of their R’s. And it’s something that happens slowly and happens over a few generations, but they sort of actively participate to get up to speed with the rest of American English and produce those R’s.

BOB: More or less as you surmised.

MIKE: Yeah, and this move towards R-fulness has occurred in the other R-dropping regions of the U.S. as well. In New England, in the South. Here again is Becker.

KARA BECKER: Today, if you’re a young Southerner, right, you’re born and raised in the South and you’re 20, 30 years old, you should be producing all of your R’s. Your community has completed that change, so there isn’t a norm of R-dropping in the South anymore.

MIKE to BECKER: If you had to bet on the future of R-dropping in New York, where’s your money?

KARA BECKER: You know, I think that R will complete its change in New York City English. Remember that this flip in terms of prestige for R, this maintains today, right, so it is still the case that Americans think that producing our R’s is the "correct" way to speak. So we have no reason to think that R won’t complete that change in New York and come back into New York City speech. It’s just the case that it’s happening slower than we thought it would.

BOB: So why is New York moving more slowly toward R-fulness than the South did? Does it have something to do with those Big Gulps that the mayor just outlawed?

MIKE: We don't know for sure, but there's some really interesting research that Becker did that might provide a clue. Several years ago, when Becker was at NYU, she lived on the Lower East Side. She found a number of people who lived nearby, on her block I believe, who were born and raised on the Lower East Side and still lived there. She recorded conversations with them, very freewheeling conversations that went on for an hour, an hour-and-a-half. And she looked at whether their use of R’s varied depending on what they were talking about. Here again is Becker.

KARA BECKER: And so what I did was I looked at the use of R across topics in each interview. And I was interested in topics that had to do with kind of local issues, speakers talking about the Lower East Side, talking about their neighborhood and talking about New York versus when they were talking about something entirely different—a trip they took or an opinion that they have about something unrelated to this local context. And so what I found was something that was really interesting, which is that speakers, when they were talking about local topics, when they were really talking about their neighborhood, they used less R, significantly less than when they talked about other things. When they talked about other things, they used a good amount of R’s. They were really inserting those R’s back into their speech.

BOB: "Yes, global warming is such a horror. And speakin' a horrah, how 'bout the fuckin' Rangahs' fuckin' powah play?!"

MIKE: [laughing] Bob, you're on a mission to just insult like every single demographic in this country.

BOB: What, hockey fans? What?!

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. So, let's take a specific example from Becker's research. One of the Lower East Siders that she spoke to was a man named Michael. He was about 75 years old at the time. He has a graduate-level education, and he's a pastor. Their conversation started off with him talking about his career. During that topic he was producing his R’s about a third of the time. When they were talking about the history of the neighborhood, the Lower East Side, his R-production dropped to 13 percent. When they talked about his family relations it went back up to 39 percent. When they talked about games he played as a child in the neighborhood, back down to 17 percent. When they talked about spirituality, up to 31 percent.

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: When they talked about changes taking place in the neighborhood, down to 10 percent. So, here's what Becker thinks might be going on here.

KARA BECKER: The speakers were dropping their R’s really to indicate or to sort of pump up their New Yorkness in that moment. So when they’re talking about a neighborhood topic, what they want is to convey just how authentic and kind of local of a New Yorker they are.

MIKE to BECKER: And they’re probably not even aware that they’re doing that.

KARA BECKER: They’re probably not. The consciousness that speakers have about a feature like R isn’t really something that you have every moment, right. It’s not like I wake up in the morning, and I look in the mirror, and I say, “Well, I’m gonna really pronounce my R’s today.” So I’m not necessarily aware of it moment-to-moment, right. I am sort of generally aware of the fact that producing my R’s is considered more correct.

MIKE: So there's a way of thinking about this that I think can tie all of this together. The overall trend in New York, like in other historically R-less areas of the country, is towards more R production, right? We saw that even for people who typically drop R’s when speaking casually, when they're speaking more carefully—in a way that they presumably think is more correct—then producing the R is an option. They're acknowledging in a sense what's called the "overt prestige" in America of using your R’s. But there's also something in linguistics called "convert prestige," in other words altering the way you speak slightly to identify yourself as authentically part of a local community. So for some New Yorkers, dropping their R’s is an option, a "resource" as Becker puts it. And those two things—the overt prestige of producing your R’s and the covert prestige of dropping your R’s—exist in tension. In other words, because dropping R’s is so strongly identified with New Yorkness—and often proudly so, right—there's a temptation to give in to this covert prestige if you think of yourself as a New Yorker.

BOB: You mean kind of like George Bush's affected twang to seem more like a Texan and a man of the people versus a Yale graduate of some privilege?

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. So in New York this might cause the trend toward R production to occur more slowly. That's a theory, right? And it may even be just my theory. I couldn't get Kara Becker to commit to it but she conceded that it was certainly a possibility.

BOB: So Mike there's this invisible if not inaudible battle between overt prestige—using R’s—and covert prestige—intentionally dropping them. The trend line seems to suggest that the overt prestige will win out. Does this presage an R-ful New York for posterity?

MIKE: Yeah, that's what linguists are predicting. That New York—certainly Kara Becker believes this, and many other linguists believe that it's inevitable that New York will become fully R-ful in the not too distant future. And, you know, one last thing. Keep in mind that in much of the rest of the English-speaking world—in England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa—R-lessness remains the overt prestigious norm. Here in North America, we're something of an outlier.

BOB: But not outliah.

MIKE: [laughing] Right, exactly. All right, well if you're an outlier or outliah send us an email at slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.


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