The Prestige of Pronunciation

Shifts provide clues to identity and socioeconomic status.

Students at Baylor University, in Waco, TX, haven't been minding their P's and Q's lately; instead, they've been tending to R's - and finding they crop up in Central Texas conversations much more than they did decades ago.

These days there are fewer "fathahs" and more "fathers," fewer "whatevahs" and more "whatevers,'' fewer "awn-ry" people and more "ornery" ones in the heart of Texas. Such changes are important because they provide clues to identity and socioeconomic status, said Jeannette Denton, PhD, coordinator of the Language and Linguistics Program at Baylor.

The shift seems to have begun in the 1930s, putting Central Texas a step ahead of such /r/-resistant strongholds as Boston and coastal South Carolina, although it has been creeping in there more frequently since the 1950s.

Ten linguistics students at Baylor investigated the change by listening to recordings of Central Texans ages 80-100.

"There's a theory that if you sample the population across age groups and think of older age groups as fossils, you can see what the language was like when they were learning. You can see a change in progress, if there's a change going on," said Dr. Denton, who led the project. "Linguistics is part of who you are, who you identify with, your age, your socioeconomic status."

Pronouncing /r/ is regarded as more prestigious than not doing so, "although I couldn't tell you why," Dr. Denton said.

The discovery by the undergraduate students in an American dialects course contradicts findings of a 1989 poll of about 1,000 Texans 18 and older. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, scholars contacted households by phone and spoke to the oldest and youngest members to listen for differences in pronunciation. The study indicated that /r/ did not begin to assert itself much until World War II.

In their search for clues to what was happening in the language, the students turned to the Institute for Oral History at Baylor. They listened to recorded interviews of 10 Central Texas African-American and Anglo-American women born between 1896 and the mid-1920s. Elderly men were not included because the sample was not large enough.

Among those interviewed during the 1980s and later were a teacher, a costume shop owner and a midwife. The students studied each person's speech in an hour-long recording.

Audrey Johnson, a senior language and linguistics major, studied the language of a 73-year-old black woman who had helped her father on the family farm. "They owned land, which was important because not many African-Americans did at the time," Johnson said. The woman pronounced /r/ when it occurred after vowels in words, such as "porch" and "furniture," but dropped it at the end of words, so "older" became "oldah."

When people begin to pronounce the sound more frequently, they do so in stages - first when it follows a vowel in the middle of the word and then later at the end of the word, Johnson said. "It's pretty universal. It's much easier to drop it at the end."

Among the main influences on speech are a person's circle of friends and acquaintances. People who lived in more than one place or communicated with a greater number of people were more likely to pronounce /r/, Dr. Denton said. The best reflection of a person's identity comes when speech is relaxed and pronunciations are not monitored.

She theorizes that because women historically have had less socioeconomic power than men, they compensated through appearance, and part of that appearance is language. "They may have tried to speak at a higher or more educated level," she said.

She plans to continue the project with new students in the fall and hopes the work will lead to a scholarly publication of the group's findings.

Articles Archives

In 1995, at Allegheny College, in Meadville, Pa., I did my undergraduate thesis on "The Loss and Intrusion of [r] in Rhode Island Dialect". The school submitted it for publication, but dialect research was not of interest at the time. It anyone is interested, especially Dr. Denton, please feel free to contact me.

Robin April 25, 2011


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