William Labov took something as small as one letter and showed how a subtle detail of our language could tell who we are.Photograph by Everett Historical / ShutterstockIn George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, professor Henry Higgins says: “You can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue. I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” British English is famous for its variety of accents, and Higgins had real prototypes, linguistic Sherlock Holmeses who could discern a speaker’s origin from a phrase or two. They knew that tiny idiosyncrasies of speech could be fraught with personal information. The first person to reveal this scientifically was an American linguist, William Labov.When Labov moved to New York City in the early 1960s, he noticed that some working-class New Yorkers sounded different from middle and upper-class dwellers. One feature stood out to him: the pronunciation of the r sound, which working-class people tended to drop. Labov suggested that the difference in pronunciation can be linked to a speaker’s class, as our social differences manifest in speech. To show this, he chose three department stores—a high-end Saks Fifth Avenue, a middle-class…Read More…
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Mapping the Differences in How Americans Speak English: A Geographic Look at Words, Accents & Dialects
In the 2005 PBS documentary series Do You Speak American? journalist Robert MacNeil traveled from fabled “sea to...In the 2005 PBS documentary series Do You Speak American? journalist Robert MacNeil traveled from fabled “sea to shining sea” to explore the mysteries of American English. Among the many questions he addressed at the time was the widespread idea that mass media is “homogenizing American language or making us all talk the same.” MacNeil, and the […] Mapping the Differences in How Americans Speak English:...
Little distinction in middle-class accents from Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, say expertsNorthern accents are becoming more...Little distinction in middle-class accents from Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield, say expertsNorthern accents are becoming more similar and softer as the number of educated city-dwellers rises, new research has found.Linguistic experts at the University of Manchester found evidence of a pan-regional “General Northern English” accent among middle-class northerners. Continue reading...