Example Research: William Labov, New York City

American sociolinguist, William Labov, carried out research in New York City in 1962. He looked at the pronunciation of /r/ in the middle, and at the end of words for example car and heart.


The New York accent is a non-rhotic accent, unlike most American accents, meaning that the /r/ is not pronounced, just as in most British varieties of English; hence /ca:/, as can be heard below. 


The phonemic representation for a rhotic pronunciation of car is [car]:
Car by AllAboutLinguistics


Whereas the phonemic representation for a non-rhotic pronunciation of car is [ca:]:
Ca: by AllAboutLinguistics


Labov believed that the higher the social class of a speaker, the more frequent the occurrence of rhotic /r/ in speech.
  

Labov's sample of participants included a variety of social classes. He conducted the study in three department stores: Saks Fifth Ave (the highest social ranking), Macy's (middle social ranking), and S. Klein (lowest social ranking) to collect his ranging sample.

       
 Saks Fifth Ave 

Labov looked for positions where /r/ could occur in speech and noted each instance of the occurrence of when it was pronounced; as in [car]. 


He collected data through a variety of methods including, asking participants to read a word list and a passage, and an informal interview; this was to try and collect natural speech in the interview and the carefully considered speech in the reading of lists and passages. 


Labov found a higher use of rhoticity in all social classes when reading the word list as opposed to in an interview. Labov concluded from these findings that rhoticity appears to be related to social status. From a sociolinguistic point of view, this tells us that rhoticity in New York is an important, useful indicator of social status. 


References

Thomas, L. et al., (2004). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Labov, W., (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Picture Credits

Saks Fifith Ave. New York. Dave (2012)  http://www.flickr.com/photos/7339565@N08/5558042236/. Used with permission.