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American Speech 76.3 (2001) 259-285

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Gender and Postvocalic /r/ in the American South:
A Detailed Socioregional Analysis

Thomas Schönweitz
University of Bayreuth


The realization of postvocalic /r/ in words like thirty, car, or father is one of the most important criteria in any attempt to classify regional and social varieties of English around the world. It is also one of the most significant features of pronunciation in differentiating between the two major standard varieties of English: American English is stereotypically a rhotic variety and British English a nonrhotic variety. But the picture is more complex, as there are r-ful dialect regions in England and r-less ones in the United States. One of the traditionally r-less dialect areas in the United States is the South, a region stretching along the eastern seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico from Maryland to Florida and inland as far as the eastern half of Texas.

1. Regional and Social Correlates of Postvocalic /r/

According to Kurath and McDavid (1961, 19-21), postvocalic /r/ in the South is regularly realized in the following ways:

1. It is replaced by an unconstricted unsyllabic [] in words like hear, bear, sure, or horse.
2. It is replaced by an unconstricted syllabic [] after diphthongs in words like wire or hour.
3. It is lost after the vowels in words like car or corn.
4. It appears as the unconstricted stressed vowel [´] in words like church or first.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The nonrhoticity of Southern speech is normally considered a stereotype (Wells 1982, 542), as it is the dominant pronunciation. In an article as early as 1948, McDavid remarks that "the fact that in every southern state one may find locally rooted native speakers with constriction in at least some of these words has either been overlooked [End Page 259] or deliberately ignored" (196). His postulation, therefore, was that the distribution of postvocalic /r/ in the South has to be interpreted using a combination of regional and social factors, for "a pure geographical interpretation is likely to be meaningless" (198).

Sociolinguistic studies have shown that postvocalic /r/ in so-called r-less varieties is a socially significant pronunciation variable. Labov (1966) showed that constricted /r/ was more widely used by middle-class than working-class speakers in New York City, a region normally considered r-less at the time of his research. Wolfram's (1969) Detroit study revealed the absence of r-constriction in African American English as characteristic of the working classes rather than the middle classes.

Sociolinguistic studies in Southern states have shown similar results. A sophisticated quantitative study of 270 white speakers in a small Southern community by Levine and Crockett (1966) revealed the following results:

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. [98]

Anshen's (1969) study of the speech of 87 black informants in the same community showed that women, younger speakers, high-school graduates, and people with nonmanual jobs and a high occupational prestige were more r-ful in all speech styles than other groups. A comparison of black and white speakers in the same study found whites more r-ful.

In both of these studies women more frequently pronounced postvocalic /r/ as a constricted variant. A well-known result of most quantitative studies of linguistic variables in their social settings--both phonological and morphosyntactic variables--is that women show a stronger tendency towards the standard or prestige variants in their speech communities. Various reasons for this fact have been discussed in the literature on sociolinguistic variation, though Trudgill's (1972, 182-83) early explanation based on his study of Norwich is still standard:

Women in our society are more status-conscious than men . . . and therefore more aware of the social significance of linguistic variables. . . . The social position of women in...


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