English Language
Labov- New York Department Store Study

Labov- New York Department Store Study

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The Impact of William Labov's Study on the Social Stratification of English in New York City

William Labov, a famous American linguist, conducted a study in 1966 titled 'The Social Stratification of English in New York City'. His goal was to investigate whether there were variations in the pronunciation of the (r) sound based on social class. To achieve this, Labov observed the speech patterns of employees from three different department stores in New York City, with varying levels of social and economic backgrounds.

Meet William Labov: The Mastermind Behind the Study

Born in 1927, William Labov is a notable linguist who has made significant contributions to the field of sociolinguistics. His research mainly focuses on dialects and language change, particularly how social factors like social class and gender can impact language. With his groundbreaking work, Labov is recognized as a leading authority in the field of linguistics. Let's delve deeper into his influential New York study.

The Hypothesis and Purpose of Labov's Study

Labov's hypothesis stated that if two subgroups of speakers in New York City were ranked on a social stratification scale, then their use of the (r) sound would follow the same pattern. In simpler terms, Labov aimed to determine if individuals from different social classes pronounced the (r) sound differently while speaking.

Phonological Variables Explored by Labov

In his study, Labov focused on the post-vocalic / r / sound, which is the (r) sound immediately following a vowel. This type of pronunciation is known as rhoticity. For instance, the rhotic (r) sound in 'car' would be pronounced as [car], similar to the sound of 'arrr' often associated with pirates. On the other hand, the average American accent is rhotic, while a non-rhotic accent would pronounce 'car' as [ca:], with the (r) sound being silent and the vowel being stretched out, like 'caaa'. Non-rhotic accents, such as British English, do not always omit the (r) sound, as some accents, like the Somerset accent, do pronounce it. An example of a non-rhotic pronunciation would be the Queen saying 'I drive my car'.

The Diversity of Social Stratification and English in New York City

Labov aimed to study a diverse group of individuals from various social classes, economic backgrounds, and ethnicities. To collect his data, he listened to the speech of employees from different department stores in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York.

The Department Stores Included in Labov's Study

The three department stores observed by Labov were:

  • Saks Fifth Avenue - a high-end, middle to upper-class store located in a fashionable shopping district
  • Macy's - a mid-priced, middle-class store situated in an area with other similar stores
  • S. Klein - a budget, more working-class store situated in the Lower East Side, a traditionally immigrant, working-class neighborhood during that time period

Labov's assumption was that the social stratification of employees would reflect the stratification of the department stores they worked in. He found that Saks offered better wages and working conditions compared to Klein's, supporting his theory on social stratification among employees in different stores.

The Varied Usage of the (r) Sound in New York City Department Stores

To gather casual and anonymous speech, Labov posed as a customer in the department stores. He would ask for directions to items he knew were on the fourth floor, using questions like 'Where are the women's shoes?'. The employees would typically respond with 'fourth floor' in a casual manner. However, to elicit a more careful and emphasized response, Labov would pretend not to hear the employee, prompting them to repeat 'fourth floor' with more emphasis.

Here is an example of the exchange:

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.'

Through this study, Labov was able to demonstrate that there is a social stratification in the pronunciation of the (r) sound among New York City department store employees. His work has considerably influenced our understanding of how social factors can impact language.

"Understanding the Social Class Divide Through English Pronunciation: Insights from Labov's Study in New York City"

During his research, Labov observed the repetition of specific questions and decided to introduce a new one: "Excuse me, what floor is this?" This question naturally evoked a response from the store employee, as it appeared to be a typical interaction with a customer. Labov used this approach to blend in as an incognito customer while concealing his true identity as a researcher.

This method of questioning adhered to ethical standards, as all data gathered remained anonymous and participants were not personally identified. It should be noted, however, that during the time of the study, ethical requirements in research were not as stringent as they are today.

Variables Considered in Labov's Study

After each interaction, Labov recorded the sex, estimated age, occupation, and race of the "informant" (store employee). These were the independent variables of the study. Additionally, Labov also noted the use of the rhotic / r / sound in the phrase "fourth floor." This use of the rhotic served as the dependent variable, as it was the factor being measured by Labov.

Data Collected in Labov's Study

In total, Labov collected data from 264 individuals across 3 department stores. The distribution of interviews in each store is as follows:

  • Store A: 80 interviews
  • Store B: 94 interviews
  • Store C: 90 interviews

Key Findings from Labov's Study

The results of the study clearly demonstrated a correlation between the use of the rhotic / r / sound and social stratification in New York City, across all three stores. This supported Labov's initial hypothesis and validated its accuracy. Employees from higher socioeconomic backgrounds (working in upscale stores) were more likely to pronounce the rhotic / r / sound, in comparison to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Now, let's take a closer look at the primary data gathered by Labov. The overall percentage of employees who used the rhotic / r / sound in at least some instances while saying "fourth floor" is as follows:

  • Store A: 62%
  • Store B: 51%
  • Store C: 20%

This data reveals a clear trend across the department stores. The majority of employees in Store A (a high-end store) used the rhotic / r / sound, while a smaller proportion of employees in Store C (a budget store) did so.

Furthermore, a table below illustrates the use of the rhotic / r / sound based on its placement in the phrase "fourth floor" (preconsonantal or final) and whether it was used casually or emphasized:

  • Store A:
  • First utterance (casual): 40%
  • Second utterance (emphasized): 70%
  • Store B:
  • First utterance (casual): 30%
  • Second utterance (emphasized): 60%
  • Store C:
  • First utterance (casual): 20%
  • Second utterance (emphasized): 35%

The following graph visualizes the use of the rhotic / r / sound across the different department stores:

From the graph, it can be seen that there is a noticeable difference in the use of the rhotic / r / sound between Store C and the other two stores, in every position of the utterance.

Interestingly, there was a higher use of the rhotic / r / sound in the second, repeated utterance in all three stores. The most significant shift was observed in Store B, indicating that most employees in this store aimed to use the rhotic / r / sound as the norm, even if it was not part of their everyday speech.

Labov attributed this to the linguistic insecurity of Store B employees, as they strived to imitate the speech norms of those in higher-class stores. In contrast, there was a smaller shift between casual and emphasized speech in Store A, suggesting that employees in this store have more linguistic confidence and are comfortable with their speech.

Key Takeaways from Labov's Study

Labov's study on the social stratification of English in New York City revealed that the use of the rhotic / r / sound differed depending on social class. By examining the speech patterns of employees from three different department stores, Labov provided evidence to support his hypothesis. It is worth noting that this study was conducted before stricter ethical requirements were put in place.

The Influence of Social Class on Speaking Styles in New York City's Department Stores: Labov's Revolutionary Study

In the year 1966, William Labov embarked on a research project called "The Social Stratification of English in New York City" to investigate the impact of social class on pronunciation. He chose to study the speech patterns of employees from three different department stores in New York, each aimed towards a different social class.

While posing as a customer, Labov asked the employees for directions to the "fourth floor," providing him with an opportunity to analyze the pronunciation of the rhotic /r/ sound. His findings revealed that employees in high-end stores, like Macy's, were more likely to pronounce the (r), while those in lower-class stores, such as Sak's, did not use the (r) sound while speaking.

This discovery sheds light on the linguistic distinctions among social classes and suggests that the use of the rhotic (r) is a signifier of social stratification in New York. These results were further confirmed by Labov's observation that there was a higher frequency of the rhotic (r) in the second repetition, showing a conscious effort by the employees to adhere to the societal norms of their respective social classes.

Labov's study contributes significantly to the field of sociolinguistics and remains a reference point for many studies even today. As stated by Labov himself, "Language usage is a form of symbolic behavior that is integral to all human activities, especially those that involve transferring meaning from one person to another."


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

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