Slate’s Lexicon Valley has a delightful piece on the “the fall and rise of rhoticity (pronouncing your R’s) in New York City English.”
This is part II on the rhoticity/non-rhoticity of “New Yawk” accents.
A set of longitudinal studies suggest that the New York accent is getting back it’s Rs. One study was done by William Lubov in the 60s which they talked about in more detail in Part I. Lubov went into three different New York City stores from upscale to discount (Saks fifth avenue, Macys and Kleins) and ask where certain items might be found, which would have the clerk respond “on the fourth floor”. The downscale store clerks at Kleins would say “fawth flaw” and when Luvbov said that he didn’t understand, only a small percentage at Kleins would respond with a different pronunciation. At Macy’s a smaller percentage said “fawth flaw” and, more significantly, when asked to say it again, a higher percentage than the downscale clerks, would respond by pronouncing the Rs.
The same study was done in three different decades (Lubov in the 60s, Fowler in the 80s and Mather in 2009) and they show that the non-rhotic accent of New York (and perhaps all of New England and maybe even the US south) is gradually disappearing.
Some of the more Brahmin versions of the New York accent (read: FDR “nothing to feah but feah itself") were highly regarded--not thought of “lowah” class at all. Now even that seems to have disappeared. I’ve not heard it for many years.
Is it widely agreed that the non-rhotic accents (Boston, New York, Virginia) come to us by immigration from the south of England? The Received Pronunciation is non-rhotic is it not?
My question is “Why”. Is it because of competition with the interior of the US which is rhotic? Or, as the show suggests after playing the well-known section of Roosevelt’s first inaugural address:
Now after World War II, as the influence and prestige of England began to decline here in America, so too did R-dropping. The prestige sort of flipped. In other words, producing your R’s became the more accepted, more prestigious way of speaking. So by the time William Labov did his department-store study in the early 1960s, New Yorkers were already much more R-ful than they were 20 years prior. And he predicted that this trend would continue.