The Case of the Missing "R's"

April 5, 2011

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Some students at Baylor University haven't been minding their "P's" and "Q's."

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 in the Heart of Texas, there are fewer "fathahs" and more "fathers," fewer "whatevahs" and more "whatevers,'' fewer "awn-ry" people and more "ornery" ones. Such changes are important because they provide clues to identity and socioeconomics, said Dr. Jeannette Denton, associate professor of English and linguistics and coordinator of Baylor's language and linguistics program.

The shift seems to have begun in the 1930s, putting Central Texans a step ahead of such "R"-resistant strongholds as Boston and coastal South Carolina -- although, even there, "R" has been creeping in more frequently since the 1950s, Denton said.

Students investigated by listening to recordings of Central Texans aged 80 to 100.

"There's a theory that if you sample the population across age groups, and if you think of older age groups sort of 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 Denton, who led 10 students in 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 why, I couldn't tell you," Denton said.

The discovery by Baylor undergraduate students in an American dialects course contradicts findings of a 1989 poll of about 1,000 Texans 18 and older. Scholars who used U.S. Census Bureau data and contacted households by phone, speaking to both oldest and youngest members to listen for differences in pronunciation. That study indicated that "R" did not begin to assert itself much until World War II.

To look for clues to what was happening in the language, Baylor students turned to Baylor's Institute for Oral History, listening to recorded interviews of 10 Central Texas African-American and Anglo-American women born between 1896 and the mid-1920s. The class did not include elderly men because they did not have a large enough sample, Denton said.

Among those interviewed during the 1980s and later were a teacher, a costume shop owner and a midwife, Denton said. Each student studied one person's speech in an hour-long recording.

Baylor senior Audrey Johnson, a language and linguistics major from Caldwell, Texas, studied the language of a black woman who was 73 and lived on a farm near Waco, where she helped her father.

"They owned land, which was important because at the time, not many African-Americans did," Johnson said.

She said that the woman pronounced "R's" that occurred after vowels in words, among them "porch" and "furniture." But she dropped her "R's" at the ends of words, so that "older" became "oldah."

When people begin to more frequently pronounce their "R's," they do so in stages, first in "R's that follow a vowel in the middle of the word, then later including "R's" that fall at the end of the word, Johnson said.

"It's pretty universal," she said. "It's much easier to drop it at the end."

One of the main influences on speech is one's circle of friends and acquaintances. People who had lived in more than one place or communicated with a greater number of people were more likely to pronounce "R's," Denton said.

Denton said that one theory is that because women historically have had less socioeconomic power than men, they compensated through appearance.

"Part of that appearance is their language, so they tried to speak at a higher or more educated level," she said.

Denton said the students did "a phenomenal job" on the study. She plans to continue the project with new students in the fall and hopes the work will lead to a scholarly publication of the group's findings.

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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