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Why Working-Class New Yorkers Drop Their “R’s”

William Labov took something as small as one letter and showed how a subtle detail of our language could tell who we are.Photograph by Everett Historical / Shutterstock

n George Bernard Shaw’s play , professor Henry Higgins says: “You can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue. I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.” British English is famous for its variety of accents, and Higgins had real prototypes, linguistic Sherlock Holmeses who could discern a speaker’s origin from a phrase or two. They knew that tiny idiosyncrasies of speech could be fraught with personal information. The first person to reveal this scientifically was an American linguist, William Labov.

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