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Labov- New York Department Store Study

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English

Labov's New York study was named 'The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Simply put, Labov wanted to test whether the pronunciation of the (r) sound changed depending on social class. He decided to study the speech of employees from 3 different department stores in New York, ranging from a budget, more working-class store to a high-end, middle to upper-class store.

Who is William Labov?

William Labov (born 1927) is an American linguist known for his influential linguistic research and contributions to the field of sociolinguistics . He is mainly recognised for his studies of dialects and language change, including how certain social factors (social class, gender etc.) affect language.

Due to all of his great work, Labov is a big name in the field of linguistics! Let's learn more about his influential New York study...

The hypothesis

If any two subgroups in New York City speakers are ranked in a scale of social stratification, then they will be marked in the same order by their differential use of (r).

(Labov, 1966)

Let's put this hypothesis into a more digestible statement; Labov wanted to see whether people of different social classes used the linguistic variable (r) in different ways (mainly whether they pronounced it or not).

Labov New York Department Store Study Social Stratification StudySmarter

Social stratification - freepik.

Which phonological features did Labov study?

Labov mainly studied the phonological variable (r). He was led to study this variable thanks to a series of preliminary (preceding) investigations which suggested that the (r) variable was sensitive to social stratification.

Labov wanted to see whether or not people pronounced the post-vocalic / r / (post-vocalic means immediately after a vowel) in the phrase 'fourth floor'. This pronunciation of the / r / sound is called rhoticity.

The rhotic r in the word car would look like this: [car]

Try saying the word 'car' and fully pronouncing the 'r' at the end of it, similar to the 'arrr' you may hear Captain Hook saying. It should sound like 'carrr'. The average, stereotypical American accent is rhotic.

The non-rhotic version of the word 'car' would look like this: [ca:]

Here, the r is not pronounced and the sound is extended like 'caaa' instead. Your mouth should be slightly open when saying it. The British accent is stereotypically thought to be non-rhotic (although some accents, such as the Somerset accent, do pronounce the rhotic 'r'). Imagine the Queen saying 'I drive my car'- this pronunciation would be non-rhotic.

The method

Labov wanted to study a wide range of people from different social classes, different economic backgrounds, and different ethnicities. He collected his data from the speech of people who worked as employees at different department stores on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York.

Macy's department store, New York - pixabay.

What department stores did Labov study?

The three department stores Labov studied were:

  • Saks Fifth Avenue (a more expensive, middle to upper-class store in a high fashion shopping district)
  • Macy’s (an averagely priced, middle-class store in an area of other mid-range stores)
  • S. Klein (a budget, more working-class store near the Lower East Side, an area which was traditionally an immigrant, working-class neighborhood at the time)

The assumption was that the social stratification (social class) of employees at the store would be in line with the social stratification of the department stores that they worked at. Labov found that the wages and working conditions at Klein's tended to be worse in comparison to Saks which offered employees better wages and personal discounts. This information supports Labov's assumption that there is social stratification amongst the employees across the different stores.

What data did Labov collect?

Labov aimed to collect casual and anonymous speech by posing as a customer in the department store. To elicit the response of 'fourth floor', Labov asked for directions to an item that he knew was on the fourth floor by asking questions like 'Where are the women's shoes?' The employee typically responded with 'fourth floor'. Labov then pretended not to hear the employee in order to elicit a more carefully spoken and emphasized response of 'fourth floor'.

The exchange would go something like this:

Labov (interviewer): 'Where are the lamps?'

Store assistant: 'They're on the fourth floor' (casual speech)

Labov (interviewer): 'Excuse me?'

Store assistant: 'They're on the fourth floor' (more carefully spoken / emphasized)

Once it was noticed that the same questions had already been asked multiple times, Labov used a new question: 'Excuse me, what floor is this?' This also led to the response: 'fourth floor'.

This method of questioning prompted a natural response from the employee, as they believed it was a normal interaction with a customer. Labov could pose as a super-secret undercover customer while disguising his status as a researcher.

This method of questioning is seen to meet the standard of ethics as the data remains anonymous and it is not possible to personally identify the participant. It is also important to remember that, at the time of this study, ethical requirements in research were not so strict.

What were the variables in Labov's study?

After an interaction, Labov made notes about the 'informant' (store worker) including their sex, estimated age, occupation (sales, cashier, etc.), and race. These were the independent variables of the study. Labov also made note of the use of (r) within the phrase 'fourth floor'. This use of (r) was the dependent variable of the study as this it was the variable that Labov was measuring.

Data from Labov's study

Overall, Labov managed to collect data from 264 people across the 3 department stores. The number of interviews in relation to department store looked like this:

S. Klein
Macy's
Saks
Number of interviews
71
125
68

The results

The results of the study clearly showed that the linguistic variable (r) was an indicator of social stratification in New York across all three stores, therefore proving his hypothesis correct (woo!). Overall, the employees with higher socioeconomic status (working in higher class stores) pronounced the rhotic / r / more frequently than the employees with lower socioeconomic status.

Let's have a look at some of the key data that Labov gained from his study.

The overall percentage of employees that used the rhotic (r) in at least some positions in the phrase 'fourth floor' is as follows:

S. Klein
Macy's
Saks
Total% of employees who use the rhotic (r)
20%
51%
62%

This table shows a clear trend across the department stores - 62% of Saks employees, 51% of Macy's employees, and only 20% of Klein's employees used the rhotic (r) in their speech. This shows clear social stratification of the (r) variable across the three department stores.

The following table shows the use of the rhotic (r) according to its position in the phrase 'fourth floor' (whether it's preconsonantal or in the final position), and according to whether the utterance was casual (1st utterance) or more carefully spoken (2nd utterance).

Labov New York Department Store Study Results StudySmarter

Graph showing the use of the (r) variable - StudySmarter Original

The blue line represents Saks, the red line represents Macy's, and the green represents S. Klein. By looking at the graph as a whole, we can see that there is a big difference between the use of the rhotic (r) in Klein's in comparison to the other stores in every position of the utterance.

Higher use of rhotic (r) in the second utterance of 'fourth floor'

Across all 3 department stores, we see a higher use of the rhotic (r) in the second, repeated utterance.

We see the greatest shift in rhoticity between the first utterance (casual speech) and the second utterance (more emphasized pronunciation) in Macy's.

What could this suggest about the language attitudes of the Macy's employees?

According to Labov, the shift in language suggests that the majority of Macy's employees aim to use the rhotic (r) as the norm, even if this is not always part of their casual, everyday speech.

The shift between casual and emphatic speech is not as big for the Saks employees. Labov suggests that this is because the Saks employees have more linguistic security (i.e., they are confident in the way that they speak and in using the rhotic (r) as the norm).

Labov- New York Department Store Study - Key takeaways

  • Labov's study was of 'The Social Stratification of English in New York City'.
  • He studied whether the pronunciation of the rhotic / r / sound changed depending on social class.
  • Labov studied the speech of employees from 3 department stores in New York, ranging from a budget, more working-class store to a high-end, middle to upper-class store.
  • He asked for directions elicited a casual response of 'fourth floor'. He then asked this to be repeated to get a more carefully emphasized response.
  • The results showed that the employees with higher socioeconomic status (in higher class stores) pronounced the rhotic /r/ more frequently than the employees with lower socioeconomic status.
  • There was a higher use of the rhotic (r) in the second, repeated utterance.
  • The biggest shift in pronunciation was seen in Macy's. The shift was not as big for Sak's employees, suggesting they have more linguistic security.

References

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

Labov- New York Department Store Study

Labov’s New York study was named ‘The Social Stratification of English in New York City’. Simply put, Labov wanted to test whether the pronunciation of the (r) sound changed depending on social class. He studied the speech of employees from 3 different department stores in New York, ranging from a budget, more working-class store to a high-end, middle to upper-class store. Labov posed as a customer, asking questions, such as ‘Where are the lamps?’, that elicited the response ‘fourth floor’. He found that the more upper-class stores tended to pronounce the rhotic (r) whilst the more working-class store did not pronounce the (r). The results of the study clearly showed that the linguistic variable (r) was an indicator of social stratification in New York.

Labov found that the linguistic variable (r) was an indicator of social stratification in New York. Overall, the employees with higher socioeconomic status (working in higher class stores) pronounced the rhotic /r/ more frequently than the employees with lower socioeconomic status.  

Final Labov- New York Department Store Study Quiz

Question

What was Labov’s research paper called?

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Answer

The Social Stratification of English in New York City

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Question

William Labov is an American linguist known for his influential research in the field of _________.

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Answer

Sociolinguistics

Show question

Question

Which linguistic variable did Labov study?


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Answer

The variable (r) - he wanted to see whether people pronounced the rhotic (r).

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Question

Rhoticity is where the /r/ sound is not pronounced in a word. True or false?


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Answer

False- the pronunciation of the /r/ sound is called rhoticity.

Show question

Question

The Queen’s accent (RP accent) contains the rhotic /r/ sound. True or false?


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Answer

False- the Queen would not pronounce the /r/ sound, therefore her pronunciation is non-rhotic.

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Question

How many department stores did Labov study?


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Answer

Labov studied 3 department stores

Show question

Question

Rank the department stores from the budget to the expensive store. (Macy's, S.Klein, Saks)

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Answer

Budget- S. Klein

Mid-range- Macy’s

Most expensive- Saks

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Question

What utterance did Labov want the employees to say?

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Answer

‘Fourth Floor’- Labov asked questions such as ‘where are the lamps’ that he knew would lead to the response ‘fourth floor’.

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Question

What was Labov’s assumption about the employees at the different stores?


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Answer

The assumption was that the social stratification (social class) of employees at the store would be in line with the social stratification of the department stores that they worked at.

Show question

Question

Name 2 independent variables (information about the store worker) that Labov studied.


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Answer

Labov made notes about the employee’s sex, estimated age, occupation (sales, cashier, etc.), and race.

Show question

Question

Which store had the lowest use of the rhotic (r) variable?


Show answer

Answer

S. Klein (the budget, working-class store) had the lowest use of the rhotic (r) variable.

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Question

Which store had the highest use of the rhotic (r) variable?


Show answer

Answer

Saks (the expensive, middle to upper-class store had the highest use of the rhotic (r) variable.

Show question

Question

What percentage of employees at Macy’s used the rhotic (r)?


Show answer

Answer

51%

Show question

Question

Which store showed the greatest shift in rhoticity between the first utterance (casual) and the second utterance (emphasised)?

Show answer

Answer

Macy’s employees showed the greatest change in speech between the first and second utterances. This suggests that most Macy’s employees aim to use the rhotic (r) as the norm.

Show question

Question

The shift between casual and emphatic speech is not as big for the Saks employees. What does this suggest?


Show answer

Answer

It suggests that Saks employees have more linguistic security (i.e. they are confident in the way that they speak and in using the rhotic (r) as the norm).

Show question

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