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Dahling...

So Fah, Dahling it's a Boah!
William Shetter
offers some thoughts on what we communicate with(out) R after vowel.

 "It's foah the gahden", "fah from heah". Can't you just hear Katharine Hepburn saying something like this in an old film? What does her pronunciation convey to you?

We'll come back to old movies in a moment. First, let's be sure we agree what it is we're talking about. Many of us who speak English as a native language pronounce words like darling, far, bore or near the same as we write them: with vowel followed by r in the same syllable. But there are many other English speakers who do not pronounce the r - sound in this place (called 'postvocalic r') - although they have the sound everywhere else, like at the beginning of a word. Linguists use the classy terms rhotic and non-rhotic for these two pronunciations.

In some people's speech this 'dropped' r reappears when the word is followed by a vowel, so you sometimes hear nevah but never again. Such speakers occasionally go on to insert an r where it doesn't belong, and say sofa but sofer and chair .

Looked at geographically, American speakers who most commonly drop the r (in what follows we'll occasionally call this the 'r-less' pronunciation) are those from Eastern New England and parts of the South, particularly the coastal area where the old 'plantation' culture once existed. It is also part of Black English Vernacular speech. Until recently, dropping the r was part of New York speech as well, though more and more New Yorkers seem to be perceiving it as 'vulgar' and avoiding this pronunciation. Even though there is no officially recognized 'standard' English in the U.S., 'r-speakers' are clearly an overwhelming majority, something you hear reflected in the mass media.

British speakers today whose speech is closest to standard British English (called 'Received Pronunciation') do not pronounce r after vowel. Postvocalic r was still regularly pronounced in English speech back in Elizabethan times, and it was around that time (l6th century) that the 'r-less' pronunciation started spreading across much of England. It did not spread as far as Ireland and Scotland, which is why we hear the 'r' pronunciation from the Irish and the Scots today. Many of the original immigrants to the colonies were from Scotland and Ireland, although at the time of settlement most English speakers were still pronouncing r after vowel too.

Now back to the films. Recently a study was made* of over a hundred American films released in the five decades between 1932 (four years after movies first included a sound track) and 1977. The study focused on just one thing: the (non-)pronunciation of postvocalic r. It's something that normally doesn't occur to most of us, but it's easy to keep tabs on the rate at which someone drops the postvocalic r, and observe whether this is increasing or decreasing. For instance, when the Beatles first started public performances in the early 60s, their pronunciation often had r after vowel because they were imitating the American rock-and-roll style. As soon as they begin becoming popular in their own right, this rate plummets as they confidently sing more and more in their customary British 'r-less' pronunciation.

The study in question did just this: the investigator listened to where postvocalic r was being pronounced and where it wasn't, and could even assign percentages to each actor in each film. Which actors were dropping r ? How does this correlate with different kinds of roles both male and female? What is being communicated by this phenomenon? Has it changed through the decades?

It was first of all obvious that in the early days of talking films, the dropping of r had a high status. The actors seemed to be imitating the high-prestige British and New England pronunciation. When a man and a woman were cast opposite each other in leading roles, it was almost invariably the woman who had the higher-status, 'r-less' pronunciation. The male actors more often pronounced the lower-status r, but most adjusted their speech, dropping r more often when talking to women.

An intriguing discovery is that actors, both men and women, usually adjusted their pronunciation, that is their 'r-dropping' rate, according to the type of role they were playing. As we might expect, the same actor would mostly pronounce r after vowel when playing a low-prestige role (say a showgirl or waitress), but mostly drop r when playing a high-prestige one (like a socialite or heiress).

There was good reason for listening to films through five decades, because it also turns out that the 'r-less' pronunciation declines steadily throughout this period. Not only that, but the same male or female actor pronounces postvocalic r more and more frequently through the years. By the 70s, the formerly common 'r-less' pronunciation has become rare.

But there is one more interesting side to this. Somewhere between the 60s and 70s the prestige standard seems to have completely reversed, so that now a pronunciation dropping r usually conveys lower, rather than higher, social status, often the speech of a vulgar woman or tough guy. In both men and women the dropping of r becomes the signal of strong emotions such as anger and hostility. This rate can vary within one film in the speech of the same actor depending on his or her emotional state.

Could you have suspected how delicately the 'r-less' pronunciation was intertwined with social status in these films of five decades? It's a small slice of American social life through a half century, but even this gives us a little glimpse into how strongly the language is tied to - and faithfully reflects - social attitudes. Does that lead you to wonder how much we're all communicating socially by the ways we pronounce?

Copyright © 2000 William Z. Shetter

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Elliott, Nancy C. 'A Study in the Rhoticity of American Film Actors.' Voice and Speech Review. 2000.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • McDavid, Raven. 'Postvocalic R in South Carolina: A social analysis' American Speech 23 (1948):194-203. Reprinted: Dell Hymes, ed. Language in Culture and Society: A reader in linguistics and anthropology, New York: Harper & Row, 1964. A. S. Dil, ed., Varieties of American English: Essays by Raven McDavid, Jr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1980.
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Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York