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In 1964, sociolinguist William Labov ran a revealing experiment in three New York department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, and S. Klein. Of the three, Saks generally commanded the highest prestige and S. Klein the lowest. Labov had found that one marker of social stratification in the city was the pronunciation of the letter R, and he wanted to see whether this was reflected in the speech of the salespeople at the various stores.

He did this by approaching a salesperson in each store and asking directions to a department on the fourth floor. When the salesperson told him “Fourth floor,” he leaned forward and said, “Excuse me?” This forced the person to say the phrase “Fourth floor” again, this time rather self-consciously.

As expected, Labov found that salespeople at the upscale Saks tended to pronounce their Rs, while those at the lower-priced Klein tended to the broader New York pronunciation “fawth flaw.” But when asked to repeat the phrase, those at Macy’s and Klein’s tended to amend their pronunciation to sound more “classy.”

“How can we account for the differences between Saks and Macy’s?” Labov wrote. “I think we can say this: the shift from the influence of the New England prestige pattern [r-less] to the mid-Western prestige pattern [r-full] is felt most completely at Saks. The young people at Saks are under the influence of the r-pronouncing pattern, and the older ones are not. At Macy’s there is less sensitivity to the effect among a large number of younger speakers who are completely immersed in the New York City linguistic tradition. The stockboys, the young salesgirls, are not as yet fully aware of the prestige attached to r-pronunciation. On the other hand, the older people at Macy’s tend to adopt this pronunciation: very few of them rely upon the older pattern of prestige pronunciation which supports the r-less tendency of older Saks sales people.”

In separate interviews Labov found that two thirds of New Yorkers felt that outsiders disliked the city accent. “They think we’re all murderers,” one man told him. A woman said, “To be recognized as a New Yorker — that would be a terrible slap in the face.”

(William Labov, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, 2006.)