I ran across this interesting article in Advance Magazine for Speech-Language Pathologists. It’s an interesting intersection between history, lingusistics, speech and the /r/ sound. Researchers from Baylor University used historical recordings to trend pronunciation of /r/ and peg such pronunciation to social status and education.

Students at Baylor University, in Waco, TX, haven’t been minding their P’s and Q’s lately; instead, they’ve been tending to R’s – and finding they crop up in Central Texas conversations much more than they did decades ago.

These days there are fewer “fathahs” and more “fathers,” fewer “whatevahs” and more “whatevers,” fewer “awn-ry” people and more “ornery” ones in the heart of Texas. Such changes are important because they provide clues to identity and socioeconomic status, said Jeannette Denton, PhD, coordinator of the Language and Linguistics Program at Baylor.
The shift seems to have begun in the 1930s, putting Central Texas a step ahead of such /r/-resistant strongholds as Boston and coastal South Carolina, although it has been creeping in there more frequently since the 1950s.

Ten linguistics students at Baylor investigated the change by listening to recordings of Central Texans ages 80-100.

“There’s a theory that if you sample the population across age groups and think of older age groups as fossils, you can see what the language was like when they were learning. You can see a change in progress, if there’s a change going on,” said Dr. Denton, who led the project. “Linguistics is part of who you are, who you identify with, your age, your socioeconomic status.”

Pronouncing /r/ is regarded as more prestigious than not doing so, “although I couldn’t tell you why,” Dr. Denton said.

The discovery by the undergraduate students in an American dialects course contradicts findings of a 1989 poll of about 1,000 Texans 18 and older. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, scholars contacted households by phone and spoke to the oldest and youngest members to listen for differences in pronunciation. The study indicated that /r/ did not begin to assert itself much until World War II. . . .

To read the complete article click here.