A sociolinguistic study of rhoticity in American film speech from the 1930s to the 1970s
This dissertation examines rhoticity, the presence or absence of a pronounced syllable coda /r/, in the speech of actors and actresses in American films from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s. Rhoticity is examined from the viewpoints of diachronic change and sociolinguistic factors for variation in order to define the shape of change and explain the nature of variation in social contexts. Over two hundred actors and actresses were studied in films of a variety of genres from the five-decade period. A steady decrease in the rate of r-less pronunciations was found in the speech of both individual subjects and the group as a whole. This decade-by-decade change in pronunciation trends indicates a shift in the prestige norm that actors and actresses imitated, from the non-rhotic model of British or New England speech to the rhotic model of Midwestern and Western speech. Patterns of change that differed for male and female subjects studied reveal a difference in the extent of imitation of the norm for the two genders, with female speech exhibiting the characteristics of the prestige norm to a greater extent than male speech.
Relevant conditioning factors in rhoticity variation include, in addition to time period of film and gender of subject, sociolinguistic accommodation to the pronunciation of a co-star, pronunciation modification towards the prestige norm by male speakers when addressing female co-stars, and the use of different pronunciations to portray a character's status, moral qualities, and in a few cases, regional origin. Finally, shifting of pronunciation styles by a subject was used to express certain dramatic intents such as strong emotion and relational attitudes towards other characters in the drama.