William Labov, is an American linguist, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. His research issues include: sociolinguistics, language change, and dialectology.
What was he researching?
He looked at the pronunciation of /r/ in the middle, and at the end of words, for example car and heart.
The phonemic representation for a rhotic pronunciation of car is [car]:
Whereas the phonemic representation for a non-rhotic pronunciation of car is [ca:]:
New York City
Labov believed that the higher the social class of a speaker, the more frequent the occurrence of rhotic /r/ in speech.
Labov’s sample of participants included a variety of social classes. He conducted the study in three department stores: Saks Fifth Ave (the highest social ranking), Macy’s (middle social ranking), and S. Klein (lowest social ranking) to collect his ranging sample.
Labov looked for positions where /r/ could occur in speech and noted each instance of the occurrence of when it was pronounced; as in [car].
He collected data through a variety of methods including, asking participants to read a word list and a passage, and an informal interview; this was to try and collect natural speech in the interview and the carefully considered speech in the reading of lists and passages.
What did he find out?
Labov found a higher use of rhoticity in all social classes when reading the word list as opposed to in an interview. Labov concluded from these findings that rhoticity appears to be related to social status. From a sociolinguistic point of view, this tells us that rhoticity in New York is an important, useful indicator of social status.
Thomas, L. et al., (2004). Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. London: Routledge.
Labov, W., (1966). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Washington: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Saks Fifith Ave. New York. Dave (2012) http://www.flickr.com/photos/7339565@N08/5558042236/. Used with permission.