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English Language & Linguistics

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Labov's New York Department Store

Labov's research in the Lower East Side of New York City showed that individual speech patterns were part of a highly systematic structure of social and stylistic stratification. He studied how often the final or preconsonantal (r) was sounded in words like guard, bare and beer. Use of this variable has considerable prestige in New York City. It can be measured very precisely, and its high frequency in speech makes it possible to collect data quickly.

One self-contained part of the research has become particularly well known. The speech of sales assistants in three Manhattan stores, drawn from the top (Saks), middle (Macy's) and bottom (Klein's) of the price and fashion scale. Each unwitting informant was approached with a factual enquiry designed to elicit the answer - "Fourth floor" - which may or may not contain the variable final or preconsonantal (r). A pretence not to have heard it obtained a repeat performance in careful, emphatic style.

The findings were that the sales assistants from Saks used it most, those from Klein's used it least and those from Macy's showed the greatest upward shift when they were asked to repeat.

The results from the department store study highlight the main themes of the research. Frequency of use of the prestige variable final or preconsonantal (r) varied with level of formality and social class.