Monday 10 June 2013

Revisiting New York department stores

- excuse me, where are ladies's shoes?
- fourth floor!

Patrick-André Mather has recently replicated one of the all-time best known studies in sociolinguistics: William Labov’s classic New York City department store survey.
Records show that as late as the 1890s New Yorkers did not pronounce [r] in words like car or guard. By 1962 though, when Labov carried out his famous survey, pronunciation in New York had begun to change. People now sometimes pronounced [r] in these positions, as in Midwestern American English.
Labov chose three stores that differed in their price range and clientele: Saks Fifth Avenue (the highest ranking store), Klein’s (a bargain basement store) and Macy’s (a middle-ranking store). In each store Labov asked sales assistants where he could find something that he knew was located on the fourth floor. In this way he elicited two words where [r] might be pronounced: once before a consonant (fourth) and once at the end of a word (floor). He then pretended not to have heard the reply, so that the assistants then repeated the same words in a more careful and emphatic speech style. He found that the pronunciation of [r] in the three stores (and by implication in New York City more generally) varied systematically with the social status of the store: assistants in Saks used [r] most often, those in Macy’s used [r] less often and those in Klein’s hardly used [r] at all. The pronunciation of [r] also varied with style, with assistants in all three stories pronouncing [r] more often when asked to repeat the words.
What, then, did Mather find when he repeated the study some five decades later? First, the overall frequency of postvocalic [r] had increased dramatically since the 1960s. This was the case for sales assistants in every store but especially for the high-end store Saks: here floor in the more careful style was now pronounced with [r] 80 per cent of the time, compared to 60 per cent in 1962. The sound change, then, is almost complete at the upper end of the social hierarchy.
Second, the age distribution had changed in Macy’s, the middle-ranking, lower-middle class store. In 1962 younger assistants in Saks used [r] more frequently than older speakers, an age difference that you would expect for a language feature that is undergoing change. In Macy’s, though, it had been older speakers rather than younger speakers who used the new form more frequently, presumably because members of the lower middle class only become aware of a new prestige form as they grow older and their social contacts and social awareness expand. By 2009 the change was now fully underway, and younger speakers in all stores, now including Macy’s, were using [r] more often than older speakers.
There was also an intriguing difference in the use of [r] by African American employees. In the new study both African American and white sales assistants had the same pattern of social and stylistic differentiation, but African Americans used [r] less frequently overall: for them the rate was 50 per cent at Macy’s compared to 60 per cent for all speakers, and under 70 per cent at Saks compared to 80 per cent at Saks for all speakers). On the other hand, African Americans were more sensitive to the phonetic environment of the feature: although all speakers used [r] more frequently in word final position (in floor) than before a consonant (in fourth), the difference was greater for the African American speakers than for the other speakers – African American employees used [r] more than twice as often in floor than in fourth. Mather comments that this pattern of use allows African Americans to maintain a distinct identity whilst still taking part in the general shift towards [r] pronunciation in New York City.
Mather points to a few drawbacks in his ‘trend’ study (in other words, a study of language change where different speakers are sampled at different times within the same community). One drawback was that the lowest level store, Klein’s, had closed down in the 1970s, so he had to find a substitute – and the substitute store needed to have a fourth floor! He chose Filene’s Basement, located close to the original Klein’s store, and also Loehmann’s, needing two lower end stores this time since neither employed as many assistants as Macy’s and Saks. Another issue was that although in 1962 most of the sales assistants were white, by 2009 most of the employees at Macy’s and the two working class stores were African American or Hispanic. What matters, though, Mather argues, is that the sales assistants are representative of the local community in New York City and therefore of the English used in that community, even if the ethnolinguistic makeup of the community has changed over time.
Patrick-André Mather (2012) The social stratification of /r/ in New York City: Labov’s department store study revisited. Journal of English Linguistics 40 (4): 338-365.
doi: 10.1177/0075424211431265  
This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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