Rhoticity within American English a guest post by Zachary Cagle

Zachary Cagle is a senior at Southern Oregon University, where he will be graduating this spring with a degree in English. After graduation, he plans to pursue a career as a writer, and this essay is his first published piece.

Dating back to the 15th century, non-rhotic speech (a variety of English in which /r/ is not pronounced unless followed by a vowel) originated in Southeast England in a handful of Old and Middle English words. By the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the postvocalic /r/ began to be deleted systematically, and by the 1790’s, postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation became common within London; although, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that this Southern British pronunciation became the British prestige standard and, subsequently, a fully established non-rhotic variety. However, due to the rising popularity of the /r/-less pronunciation in the early seventeenth century, as the English began to immigrate to America the majority of settlers came from areas of non-rhoticity. Ergo, the areas of Boston, New York, Richmond, Savannah, and Charleston all became /r/-less, with the only exception being Philadelphia. Consequently, the majority of the Northeastern and Southern areas of what would later become the United States of America were largely influenced by this non-rhotic variety, which ultimately became the accepted standard and remained so until the 1940’s. In essence, the end of World War Two triggered a shift in prestige from non-rhotic to rhotic speech within American English, resulting in a transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech within the North and later the South due to a variety of socioeconomic/regional factors.

In contrast to the adoption of the British English non-rhotic standard in the seventeenth century, the change in prestige that occurred after World War Two was a result of the declining influence and prestige of England in America. This change in prestige, rather than evolving slowly over many generations, was abrupt, occurring first in the North with the South following suit shortly after, and resulted in a loss of the /r/-less pronunciation within three generations. However, the social motivation behind this transition differed between the Northeastern and Southern populations. In the North, this realization of the rhotic norm occurred within the upper middle classes and was, therefore, a case of change from above, whereby r-lessness received a negative connotation and consequently low social evaluation. Whereas in the South, due to a history of /r/-less speech gaining prestige among the upper classes with the spread of the plantation system from 1750 onward, the change to /r/-fullness was and is, consequently, a case of change from below – both below the level of consciousness and moving from lower to higher social classes.

The question, therefore, is: how did this transition occur systematically and, secondly, how did such drastic change occur in such a short span of time? Two studies – one conducted by Crawford Feagin on the dynamics of sound change within the South, and a second study conducted by Thomas Schönweitz on the role of gender and the postvocalic /r/ in the South –provide answers to these questions. And, despite focusing primarily on the loss of the postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation within the Southern United States, they nonetheless provide insight into some of the factors that likely played a role in this transition within the North as well.

In the study titled “The Dynamics of a Sound Change in Southern States English: From r-less to r-full in Three Generations,” Feagin examines the changes that were taking place in the realization of /r/ within the community of Anniston, Alabama. Using the interviews of ten informants “divided by age, sex, social class, and – for the older informants – urban/rural” (Feagin 130), Feagin deconstructs the linguistic ordering of change – i.e., the /r/-shift – and examines it for four linguistic environments representing the various degrees of rhotic speech (three vocalic environments, one postvocalic), after which he extracts and analyses all words containing potential /r/ in said environments. For example, “Environment 1. Stressed vocalic r followed by a consonant as in work, person, university, Environment 2. Stressed vocalic r in word-final position as in fir, her, were” (132-133), etc. In essence, Feagin’s findings corroborated the former prediction by linguist C.J. Bailey regarding language change:
Change appears – variably – first in restricted environments, begins slowly, then simultaneously speeds up and expands to more and more environments, going to completion in first one environment then another, until the change has gone through all linguistic environments for all members of the community (qtd. in Feagin 132).

Accordingly, Feagin identifies four stages regarding the degree to which an individual integrates rhotic pronunciation within their own speech: “Stage 1. No vocalic or postvocalic tautosyllabic r at all, Stage 2. Low occurrence of r in Environment I, stressed vocalic r followed by tautosyllabic consonant, with even lower rates of r-occurrence in Environments III and IV, Stage 3. Categorical pronunciation of r in Environment I, with rapidly increasing proportions elsewhere, Stage 4. Nearly 100% r in all positions” (137). These stages illustrate the way in which the transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech occurs systematically.

Before delving into Feagin’s analysis of the social ordering of change, it is important to first address the study by Schönweitz, titled “Gender and Postvocalic /r/ in the American South: A Detailed Socioregional Analysis.” In this study, Schönweitz looks at the correlation between sex, ethnicity, age, education, social status, and region with regard to an individual’s level of tendency towards standard pronunciation features within speech. In essence, Schönweitz set out to determine whether the general consensus regarding these traits, which is prevalent in the results of various small studies conducted in the past, holds true for all of the Southern states, and whether /r/-fullness is observed in a variety of social groups in all the Southern regions concerned. These characteristics are highlighted in a study conducted by Levine and Crocket (1966):

Women, young people, the newer residents, and higher status persons take the national /r/-norm as their speech model, while the linguistic behavior of males, older people, long term residents, and blue-collar respondents is referred to a southern prestige norm – the /r/-less pronunciation of the coastal plain (qtd. in Schönweitz 260).

Furthermore, most studies also showed that those with higher educations tended to be /r/-full, that the higher the social class the more likely for individuals to be /r/-less, and that whites tend to be more /r/-full when compared to blacks.

Utilizing information on more than 100 words and phrases collected from more than 1,100 interviews of informants, which was conducted during the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s for the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (LAGS: a linguistic map describing the dialects of the American Gulf states), Schönweitz used multiple programs to analyze the data in order to determine if the characteristics of rhotic pronunciation were an atlas-wide phenomenon; i.e., a pattern seen throughout the majority of the Southern states and, therefore, not confined to the restricted environments of previous studies. It was discovered that some of the overall patterns found in the LAGS area – regarding the aforementioned social factors – are not present when the data is broken down by sector; however, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t still have a considerable role within the transition, such as the case with social class. In other words, some social factors may not be atlas-wide according to Schönweitz analysis, but they still played a significant role within the transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech within both the South and the North. Therefore, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, Schönweitz analysis found that only sex, ethnicity, and age showed consistent atlas-wide patterns with regard to rhoticity and the pronunciation of /r/. The results of the study are as follows: females are more rhotic than males, whites more than blacks, and young more than old.

In relation to Schönweitz findings, Feagin’s analysis of the social ordering of change provides some insight into how this transition occurred so rapidly and why it was, and still is, characterized by the social factors illustrated by Schönweitz and others. In one southern family studied by Feagin, the grandmother showed 0% /r/ pronunciation while the grandson showed 91%; however, interestingly, they were both from the upper classes. According to Feagin, there are a variety of factors that likely contributed to the rapid transition, which emanated from the general trend regarding the change to rhoticity, especially within the South; that is to say, “the change began in the urban working class…spread out to the rural working class and welled up socially to the upper class teenagers” (Feagin 138). Given the level of prestige associated with /r/-less speech within the South, the transition originated with teenage girls in the urban working class, which, as Feagin points out, adheres to the normal pattern in developed countries in the west with regard to language change. However, the conclusion of World War Two brought prosperity to the South and, subsequently, new opportunities that gradually influenced speech through social change. And when these effects became prominent, it sparked a rapid transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech due to the fact that this transition – as a result of a variety of social factors – now had influence on the upper classes. Accordingly, Feagin postulates that there were four factors that likely contributed to this rapid change: a rise in association of /r/-lessness with femininity; the amount of contact between whites and blacks decreased; an increase of mixing with people from other areas; and more travel, which exposed children to a larger variety of speech.

Looking specifically at the factor of ethnicity, Feagin suggests that “Southern White /r/-lessness might have been reinforced by the /r/-lessness of the large black population” (Feagin 139). In essence, prior to World War One Southern upper-class children had close relations with blacks due to their presence as servants within households. However, after World War Two “contact with blacks was curtailed, both because of black migration to Detroit and other Northern cities and because of the institution of minimum wage laws” (140). As a result, the majority of children studied during this period were almost 100% /r/-full, while those who still had black servants were noticeably more /r/-less.

In looking at these studies, it becomes apparent why any remaining non-rhotic speech within American English is currently typically found amongst older Southern and Northeastern speakers, and even then only in a few select areas, with the exception of a few dialects from New England, Boston, Main, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. In essence, the current nature of non-rhotic speech within American English is due to the fact that this transition began amongst the youth – largely due to a variety of social factors that arose at the end of World War Two, as aforementioned. However, one question remains: Why then is non-rhoticity a staple feature of African American Vernacular? In short, according to a study by John Myhill, much like how the rise of /r/-full speech had ties to the relations between blacks and whites, the retention of non-rhoticity among African Americans is directly correlated to their level of integration and association with the white community. Hence, the more interaction between African Americans and whites the lower the probability of /r/-deletion, and vice versa.

While the topic of Rhoticity and the transition that occurred may seem daunting and overly complex due to the myriad of factors at play, in the end, they are merely a handful of interworking socioeconomic/regional factors that had the combined effect of bringing forth a transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech. This transition ultimately emanated from a decline in England’s influence and prestige within the United States at the end of World War Two. And, consequently, a shift in prestige occurred that swept the Northeastern and Southern United states, which was a change from above in the North and below in the South with regard to the factor of socio economic status and the realization of the rhotic norm.

Works Consulted

    Elliott, Nancy C., A Sociolinguistic Study Of Rhoticity In American Film Speech From The 1930S To The 1970’s. n.p.: Dissertation Abstracts International, 2000. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

    Feagin, Crawford. “The Dynamics Of Sound Change In Southern States English: From R-Less To R-Ful In Three Generations.” Development and Diversity: Language Variation across Time and Space. 129-146. Dallas: Summer Inst. of Ling. & Univ. of Texas at Arlington, 1990. MLA International Bibliography.
    Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

    Lass, Roger (1999). “Phonology and Morphology”. In Lass, Roger. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III: 1476–1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 56–186.

    MacNeil, Robert, and William Cran. “Toward a Standard: Putting the “R” in “American”” Do You Speak American? New York: Doubleday, 2005. 49-87. Print.

    Myhill, John. “Postvocalic /R/ As an Index of Integration into the BEV Speech Community.” American Speech: A Quarterly Of Linguistic Usage 63.3 (1988): 203-213. MLA International Bibliography. Web.
    12 Mar. 2016.

    Schönweitz, Thomas. “Gender And Postvocalic /R/ In The American South: A Detailed Socioregional Analysis.” American Speech: A Quarterly Of Linguistic Usage 76.3 (2001): 259-285. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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