William Labov –
“An enormously original and influential figure”
Born in 1927, William Labov, has researched and studied various elements of the english language, including the grammatical rules of African American Vernacular English and referencial indeterminacy (where when confronted with the same object different people call it different things, e.g. cup/mug/beaker). However, the majority of William Labov’s work is in sociolinguistics and language prestige.
He once hypothesised that pronunciated of the “r”, seen as prestigious in New York, would be most evident in higher social classes and more formal situations. To test this he visited three New York department stores (Saks, Macy’s and Klein’s) all of which target and represent a different social class. To test his theory Labov asked sales assistants in each store a factual question to which the answer was, “fourth floor.” As he had hypothesised, sales assistants in Saks (the highest end store) pronounced their “r” the clearest, with Macy’s (the middle store) coming second and the assistants at the lower-end Klein’s having little or no pronunciation of the “r”. Another observation he made was that assistants at Macy’s, when asked to repeat their answer, had the most marked difference in pronunciation, speaking ‘up’ and pronouncing the “r” far more clearly than they had previously.
To test my own hypothesis, that in the north west using an “υ” instead of “Λ” is seen as less prestigious, I mimicked Labov’s test and went around large stores in Manchester. The two most common ways that people from Greater Manchester pronounce a “u” are “υ” and “Λ”. The vowel difference makes a word such as “upstairs” either sound like: “υpstєərz”, which sounds something like, “uhhpstairs” with a much longer vowel sound. Or as : “Λpstєərz” where the shorter vowel sound makes it sound closer to “ahhpstairs”. I hypothesised that the “Λpstєərz” version would be more prevalent in higher-end shops like Selfridges as it’s closer to “BBC english” and what is promoted by the media as a more ‘proper’ way of speaking and that the more regional “υpstєərz” would be more comonly found in lower-end stores such as Primark.
By asking a factual question, as Labov had done, to which the answer was “upstairs” I was able to listen to people speak free of the inhibitions that come with being aware that you are being taped, the lack of taping does however mean that the margin for human error was wider. I found that in Selfridges far more of the sales assistant replied with “Λpstєərz” than with “υpstєərz” but many answered with floor numbers (as in Labov’s test) rather than with the required “upstairs”. In primark I found three people who said, “υpstєərz” and one who said “Λpstєərz”, but this is only out of 10 people and my results in Primark on the other hand were some what skewed by the high proportion of foreign sales assistants. With many Eastern-European shop assistants a large portion of my results came closer to, “æpstєz”, although this isn’t completely accurate because many of them spoke quickly and quietly making it difficult for me to note.