William Labov: New York City, USA (1966)

William Labov worked on a classic study on social stratification for New York City speech. He was able to illustrate the social stratification of (r) in N.Y.C. department stores. The variants of the phonological variable (r) are either presence or absence of post-vocalic /r/. That is, in expressions such as fourth floor, whose pronunciation was tested by Labov, /r/ was either pronounced or omitted. Historically, New York City speech had been characteristically r-less, i.e. it featured a non-rhotic accent. However, the general attitude towards this accent feature was rather negative and the pronunciation of /r/ seems to have been reintroduced to New York City speech. Labov found that in New York City the pronunciation of /r/ occurred and its frequency of use depended on the speakers’ membership to particular socioeconomic status groups, i.e. social classes.

Labov’s department store survey was threefold in character:

(1) He studied the speech of employees in three department stores in Manhattan: Saks Fifth Avenue (an expensive upper middle-class store), Macy’s (a less expensive middle-class store), S. Klein (a discount store frequented mainly by working-class New Yorkers).

In order to study the pronunciation of /r/ by the employees of the three department stores, Labov asked questions which should elicit the lexical items (‘fourth floor’) containing the desired accent feature in the employees’ speech:

1st question: “Where can I find the lamps?” Elicited answer: “fourth floor.”
2nd question:“Excuse me?” Answer: repeated and more careful utterance of fourth floor.

Each employee thus could pronounce post-vocalic /r/ four times (twice each in fourth and floor).

Result: The results illustrated that (r) in New York City was stratified by class. The pronunciation of /r/ depended on the social-class membership of the employees: Those with higher socioeconomic status pronounced /r/ more frequently than those with lower socioeconomic status.

(2) In a modified survey Labov studied the pronunciation patterns of the largest homogeneous group of informants in the three department stores: white female sales clerks. The survey yielded the same results: The higher the socioeconomic status of the female sales clerk, the more frequently she pronounced /r/.

(3) Class stratification was also the result of another modified survey. This time Labov did not focus on pronunciation patterns in each of the three department stores but on the feature occurring in a single store, and in the speech of three occupational groups. Again, the higher the socioeconomic status of the occupational group, the higher was the frequency of pronouncing /r/.

Apart from his department store survey in New York City, Labov conducted a survey including a number of linguistic variables which focused more generally on the speech of New York City residents who differed in their socioeconomic status. His investigation included the variable (ng) and again (r). The results of the department store survey were mirrored more generally in the speech of New York residents. For both variables there was a characteristic social stratification: The higher the socioeconomic status, the higher was the frequency of /r/ pronunciation and of using the velar nasal variant [ŋ] in all styles of speech. Labov’s studies, therefore, also revealed style stratification (see Stylistic Pattern: Language and Style): Each socioeconomic status group also pronounced /r/ and [ŋ] more often as the speakers’ attention paid to speech was increased in different speech styles.

(Information adapted from Finegan, 2004)

A special phenomenon that Labov came across in his studies was that of Hypercorrection.

Read more on William Labov’s study of New York City speech:

Labov, W. (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Labov, W. (1972). Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.