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Rhoticity


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The term rhoticity originates from the late 1960s and is used by the linguists, to differentiate between two major varieties in modern English: one is that letter r is pronounced as in words like run, rabbit; and another one is that letter r is pronounced as in words crash, or four. Rhoticity was derived from the Greek letter rho (p) which is an equivalent to r.

The variety of different dialects of modern American English was caused by the numerous historical reasons. Basically the difference of rhotic and r-less dialects in modern American community depending on its location was influenced by the social and ethnic groups that immigrated there and influenced the entire process of forming of the particular social groups on different territories as well as it influenced on the local dialects of that territories.

As the research shows the first immigrants from England that came to the New World were primary rhotic speaking, as r-full speech was common through England in the sixteenth century, with the exception of some London areas and southeast England. R-lessness was a feature of an upper-society, and r-less dialects are often found in New England nevertheless, and Boston dialect is r-less.

But the Mid-Atlantic coast and western New England was inhabited by the immigrants from Western parts of England and later by the immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, who to the difference to Southeasters spoke r-full English. Because these settlers formed the primary population of New York, so primary the speech of New Yorkers was rhotic.

Later as the city grew and the immigration rate to the United states increased the American English felt a more influence of settlers whose first language was not English. Immigrants from non-anglophone countries as Germany, Scandinavians, Eastern Europe (especially immigrants from Russia) made a remarkable influence on the dialects spoken in New York today. Basically they also influenced the strong pronunciation of letter r in speech, as it's common especially in Russian and German colloquial speech. But the tendencies of rhotic and non-rhotic dialects changed in New York from time to time. In the eighteenth century non-rhotic speech distinguished the representatives of upper society as it was in Great Britain and this tendency was common in New England. The spreads of non-rhotic dialects touched the major part of New England, mainly Boston and Connecticut. As the interaction between cities grew and migration inside the country became a usual thing, the language people spoke was influenced as well. Even though that in the seventeenth century the attitude towards British can not be called positive, the majority of the British society norms were observed in New World as well. That's why the issue of the spread of non-rhotic speech in New York city can be considered to be as the acceptance of the prestigious norm of that time. These tendencies spread on New York in the second part of the nineteenth century, with the rapid development of the city and a great need in labor that coursed an increased growth of immigration from New England and other states basically where southern dialects were spoken.

Even so that the speech of the native New Yorkers was rhotic, it was still influenced strongly by the other dialects, which were more spread in the USA, and as a result of such diverse dialect mixture the New York accent is now one that is not so similar to other spoken on the Eastern coast and is quite well recognized: ?New York ... has a distinctive accent, which differs from others more sharply than does any other North American regional accent. Americans in general are more aware of this accent than of any other local accent except possibly American southern accents (and in this they differ from the British, who are usually quite unaware that a New York accent is in any way different from other American accents).? (Wells, 1982b: 501f.)

The spread of non-rhotic dialect was so remarkable that nowadays most of New Yorkers distinguish from the Standard English by r-less dialect, a pattern when the syllable-final (in this case r) is not pronounced. But still we can not say that in New York English final r is just always dropped, it's still remains somehow ?noticed?. The dropping of r in the speech of New Yorkers and Bostonians is still different.

The differences in the English dialects spoken by the Irish and Scottish immigrants, who formed the major group among other nations arrived to North America, from that one which is considered to be British English now, which is non-rhotic, is the main reason why the modern American English is mainly rhotic.

As many researches show non-rhotic speakers are mostly those who were born before World War 2, and between those who were born after the WW2 are the number of rhotic-speakers is increasing, and as later they were born the more evident that they are rhotic speakers. Rhotic English is considered to be more correct now and is the feature of the upper society, so the growing number of rhotic speakers still has a social isolation.

Jonathan Reese in his article English in North America, highlights the particularities of the New York accent, researched by the German linguists: ?It is really curious that B?hr (1974) does not mention this special accent. Geographically, the speech of New York is no longer restricted to the City as it was till the beginning of this century. It comprehends the surrounding counties of New York State and New Jersey, too (Bronstein, 1962: 13).

Within it, there is the greatest range of social divergence found in the whole ?new world? (Wells, 1982b: 502).

That is why by time different vowel treatments arose. In original New York City speech vowel + r tended to be produced as a diphthong ending in [i] or []. Diphthongs unknown in StE nor GenAm are a sign of this accent in general. Long vowel often end in schwa ([]), e.g. bath [be], thought [:t]. The [ju:] is mostly pronounced [iu]. Beside the [ai] of time (Bronstein, 1962: 18) and the glottal stop that occurs in lower class dialect, reminding of southern English pronunciation (Wells, 1982b: 515), the omitting of syllable-ending l or d after nasal consonants and the very unusual treatment of the th?es, which tend to be spoken as dental stops, should be emphasized. In opposition to the latter, ?Many New Yorkers pronounce the alveolar consonants /t, d, n, l/ with the blade of the tongue rather than with the tip.? (Wells, 1982b: 515).?

The study of William Labov shows the further particularities of rhoticity in New Yorkers speech. His famous study of department store employees? speech showed the particularities of r pronunciation. If the employees in the fancy stores very often pronounced rs in the both words of the phrase he gave to test the speech: ?fourth floor?, while those working in the discount stores nearly didn't do it at all. His further research found that those whose speech was literary correct and careful, were trying to pronounce all the rs by the American standard English.

The work of William Labov The Social Stratification of English in New York, made in 1966, shows that new York accent is well recognized by many Americans, and is often made fun of, being used for comic effects on television and radio.

As Labov marks, the New Yorkers are not so optimistic about their own accent, and the majority of them have the negative attitude towards speech in New York. It's mentioned as ?linguistic self-hatred? (p.489 in Labov's work, New Yorkers talk about their manner of speech like ?distorted?, 'sloppy? and ?horrible?. As the study goes on, we clearly see that the majority of questioned consider people living outside the New York area having a negative attitude towards New York accent.

The example to prove this saying, used by Labov to prove it are the words of an old Irish man who says about those living out of New York area: ?they think we are the murders?, as well as the majority of middle class women are also shamed of being recognized as New Yorkers(p.486), but in the majority of cases the new Yorker's speech is well recognized by New Yorkers.

It's interesting that the most of people questioned think that even those who live outside New York City have a more correct speech than those who live in the city. Those who live outside the New York City, having a more standard speech, are indifferent to the purity of their speech and in the number they feel neutral about accent issues, so much being thought about by New Yorkers.

As the research shows there is quite a contrast in the attitude towards the accent of the different social groups in New York. While the middle class and upper-class representatives are more careful in their speech and are trying to speak the standard American as they can, being rhotic, the rest of the social groups don't pay a lot of attention to the accent, and don't have anything common to the wish to change their manner of speech. This attitude towards the manner of speech is well understood and can be explained by the obvious reasons. Most of people from the lower and working class consider city quite good place for living and don't think about moving to the subs or out of city where the speech is different so they don't pay that much of attention to it as do ambitious middle-class and upper-class groups.

The New Yorkers manner of speech which often used a subject for jokes and comic effects gives more soil for the speech self-hatred among the New Yorkers. Among the examples of New York accent it's enough to mention the pronunciation of the word thirty-third which is pronounced toity-toid by the most of New Yorkers. As I've mentioned the special feature of New York accent is the absence of non-prevocalic /r/ in their casual speech. For example earl and oil are pronounced in the same way, as well as voice and verse. The pronunciation of non-prevocalic /r/is considered to be the feature of a pure and prestigious speech, but is more used in formal speech and is becoming adopted by the many of New Yorkers nowadays.

New York accent is limited to the territories of the city and some New jersey areas and doesn't come out of the state of New York, which is showing the absence of any spread of the accent out side the borders of the city. By the words of William Labov in his study he refers to the New York accent as following: ?as far as language is concerned, New York City may be characterized as a great sink of negative prestige?. By the further explanation Labov shows that speech common to New York had not expand like speech patters of the other urban areas on the Eastern coast. It's enough to mention the case with Boston, Philadelphia and Richmond, where at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the speech patterns expanded on up to 170 miles around the city, but the expansion of the New accent is not obvious.

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The research of William Labov makes the conclusion about the failure of the spreading of the New York accent. And it's core in the negative attitude towards the accent that the inhabitants of the city have. The development of the city and changes in the manner of speech were so diverse and complicated because of both out of the country immigration and migrations of people inside the country that New York accent became an isolated one which has been preserved only on the territory of the city.

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Now the tendency is changing to the r-full speech, and as the New Yorkers are in the majority ashamed of their speech they are likely to accept the speaking rules of a new environment, and this process will end with the appearance of the new accent, not so distinguishing from others spoken.

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By: Aaron Schwartz

 

 

 

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