William Labov's "fourth floor" experiment - 1966
An investigation into the use of the postvocalic "r" or the Terminal "r" at the ends of words, such as "car," "twirl," "floor," "farm" and "park."
- The postvocalic "r" is an indication of class, commonly associated with upper-class speakers.
- Even though it had previously been suggested the use of the "r" was purely a chance affair, Labov hypothsised the "r" sound correlated with social status and rejected the notion of randomness.
Sociolinguists had already concluded that salegirls upwardly converged to mimic their customers, especially when they appear to be of a high social status. Labov used this knowledge to carry out his own experiement, in three New York department stores:
= Saks, Fifth Avenue (high-end fashion, spacious, quality products)
= Macy's (middle-priced, middle-class store)
= Klein's (cheap, cluttered, situated near Lower East Side, poor)
He conducted a total of 264 interviews, asking a different salesclerk each time the directions to a particular section on the fourth floor of the building. "Excuse me, where are the women's shoes?" to which the reply would be "the fourth floor." Labov then asked the sales assistant to repeat the phrase again, sugessting he had not heard properly, and again he would get the same reply. Only this time, "fourth floor" was spoken more carefully and with emphatic stress.
- Labov collected his results, including gender, approximate age and race.