Language investigation ideas: Accent and dialect

After Labov’s New York department stores study

Does shop assistants’ speech converge with the speech style of their customers?

A version of Labov’s study can easily be done anywhere there are a variety of similar shops (or publicly accessible institutions like sports centres or libraries).

Labov gathered data from three department stores (one expensive, one a discount store and one in the middle – their status was measured by the price of a ladies coat in the store) by inducing assistants to say the phrase ‘fourth floor’. As the rhotic /r/ is a prestigious feature in US accents, the question was whether assistants in the more expensive stores would use the prestige form more often (they did).

This idea has worked well for A level students going into different supermarkets and collecting data on a specific variable (something that can be pronounced in more than one way). In one example, students induced the shop assistants to say the phrase ‘cottage cheese’ (to see whether they glottal-stopped the /t/ sound in the middle of ‘cottage’), but you could design other phrases to test other forms of pronunciation that are socially marked (i.e. seen as high or low status) – th-fronting, for example, could work well.

To collect data on which supermarkets in the investigation might be considered most or least prestigious, choose a specific item that every store sells and compare the prices (some stores have a wide range of e.g. cheese, so it might be worth looking for the absolute cheapest and/or most expensive item of a specific type in each store). 

The data collection would need to be consensual, so ask at the store’s customer service desk whether they mind data being collected. 

AO1 – this is complicated by how the A level investigations are marked. Labov focused on one variable (rhotic /r/) but that’s too narrow to get good AO1 marks in an A level investigation, so this idea would need much more data than just that. If the interaction involves being taken to the product in question there’s often some chat on the way to the relevant aisle, and that can have interesting elements like facework (e.g. asking/instructing the customer to follow, the assistant representing themself as completely willing to leave whatever they were doing), weak modality to give the customer options (for things like ‘you could try this one…’) and spoken features like phatic content to fill time while walking, and question/answer adjacency pairs for the transactional parts of the conversation. 

AO2 - Labov is the obvious and central person for this idea, but discussing facework could involve Brown and Levinson, and both Malcolm Petyt’s work in Bradford and Trudgill’s work looking at non-standard features in Norwich fit well when discussing high and low status features and their association with class. Worth especially looking at the detail of Trudgill’s findings, where people spoke differently (shifted their style) according to whether they were casually conversing with the interviewer or reading a word list aloud. Could arguably get into social network theory research like Jenny Cheshire’s Reading study or the Milroys’ work in Northern Ireland when discussing factors that might be producing whatever results come up (people who have worked in a shop full-time presumably converge to some extent). Ideas from language and occupation research might also be relevant – institutional roles and allowable contributions could probably both be applied to the assistants’ speech. 

AO3 – There are lots of possible factors to look at here. The prestige of the store is the obvious one, but the time of day might affect how friendly or chirpy the subjects are (or how close they are to the end of their shifts), the assistants’ experience and familiarity with the locations of items in the store, the age of the assistants (with a possible feeling of more social closeness if they’re similar ages to the investigator), how common the item asked for is, the accent the investigator uses to ask the question, and the social networks of the assistant would all play a role (though some would be hard to get data on without full interviews of the assistants after the experiment). 

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