The fall of the r-less class

Posted by on November 14, 2011

Class English month continues with the pronunciation theme: guest blogger Ben Trawick-Smith, from Dialect Blog, takes a look at (non-)rhoticity in American English. Ben has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. His other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film. Ben lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington, in the USA.

____________

George Bernard Shaw deemed the US and Britain ‘separated by a common language.’ Yet a century ago, the ‘elites’ of these two nations shared quite a bit of linguistic common ground. When one listens to the accents of America’s old East Coast moneyed class – those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William F. Buckley, and Katharine Hepburn – one notes striking similarities to the ‘Queen’s’ English once spoken on the other side of the Atlantic.

The common denominator is non-rhoticity, sometimes known as ‘r-lessness.’ Non-rhotic accents drop the r’s in words like car or butter, while a rhotic accent keeps said r’s intact. We tend to think of England as non-rhotic, where Ireland, the US and Scotland are ostensibly rhotic. In reality, however, there are exceptions to these generalizations: Northeastern US accents, popular Dublin English, and some urban Scottish accents being the most notable.

The past century has seen American and British attitudes toward non-rhoticity diverge. Where r-lessness was once a prestige feature in both countries, it is a marker of working-class or vernacular speech in 21st-century America (typical of the broadest New York City, Boston and African American Vernacular Englishes). In England, on the other hand, non-rhoticity is stronger than ever, colonizing the country’s last rhotic safe havens.

So what happened? Arguably, World War II happened. Upon arriving home, middle-class American GIs scattered throughout the country in search of jobs and housing. Sheer numbers probably influenced the resulting dialect shift: since rhotic Americans likely outnumbered the non-rhotic, /r/ won out. R-fulness became the norm, while ‘r-dropping’ became (to the unenlightened) a regional, lower-class aberration. Thus the feature did an about-face: what was a badge of upper-crust honour now marks low socioeconomic or educational status in the U.S.A.

I can think of few features with such rapidly devalued social currency. Contemporary English people may find older varieties of Received Pronunciation hopelessly stuffy. Likewise, the Irish still laugh at ‘Dortspeak,’ the British-influenced accent once spoken by Dublin’s elite (and recently well-summarized by Stan Carey on this blog). But in both cases, these accents merely lost their elite status, rather than being relegated to different classes entirely.

How we perceive non-rhoticity in America is inconsistent. American non-rhotic accents are largely stigmatized; New Yorkers and Bostonians, every bit as non-rhotic as Londoners a century ago, now often insert the /r/ wherever it appears written. And yet, paradoxically, we Americans readily accept this feature in the speech of Britons, even finding it ‘proper’ or ‘elegant.’ Is this a case of American dialect self-loathing rearing its ugly head?

Email this Post Email this Post
Comments (4)
  • No, it’s not self-loathing; the “English accent” to US speakers sounds elegant or classy because of (what I think linguists refer to as) intonation, or stress patterns. And, as you point out, it’s the east-coast working classes that are non-rhotic, so naturally it would lose any prestige it may have had due to that.

    I would like to know, BTW, why the Enlish think it’s ok to put an “r” between two vowels ending and beginning two consecutive words (eg: idea”r”of). Maybe they didn’t know what to do with all the leftover “r’s” they weren’t using 🙂

    Also, what is the support for the theory that WW2 soldiers returning home led to the spread of rhoticity in US English.

    Posted by Joseph Persico on 14th November, 2011
  • […] Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Ben Trawick-Smith considered the fall of the r-less class, while Stan Carey discussed Received Pronunciation and Dortspeak and questioned the “ideal” […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 18th November, 2011
  • I don’t find the English non-rhotic to be “elegant” or “classy”. It is what it is. OTOH, I find the Irish-English accent to be pleasing.

    Posted by AnWulf on 27th November, 2011
  • @ Joseph Persico
    The reason we keep rhotic r’s in between vowels is ease of pronunciation, a common force in linguistics, and also the keep our words separate. For example if we didn’t pronounce the R’s in “PARRY” it would become PAY – confusing. When it comes to R’s at the end of words the common people actually commonly add the R sound at the end of a word to the start of the next word (Butta r’and Cheese) this way it fits our pattern better; i.e pronouncing r’s at the start and in the middle of words. This feature actually creates better flow of words, and is entering British Recieved Pronunciation on News etc and programmes where presenters were always traditionally very well spoken.
    If you can do a non rhotic accent, try saying Butta and Milk, then Butta r’and Milk and you will see what I mean 🙂

    Posted by Dan, Cambrige, UK on 23rd March, 2013
Leave a Comment
* Required Fields