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Why we 'R' the way we 'R'

How one little sound came to be the hallmark of 'standard American' speech.

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One of the premises of this column is that language is perpetually changing. That's true not only of usage and word choice but of pronunciation, too. It doesn't take too much time watching an old movie to make you realize that the "New York stage English" of early talkies is very different from the American English bouncing around the airwaves today.

How did we get so homogenized? And so Midwesternized?

Many people have a general sense of American broadcast English as being essentially Midwestern. But how and why it got to be that way is another story. "It was because all those famous early broadcasters were from the Midwest," is one common explanation.

Well, not quite, says Thomas Bonfiglio, a linguist at the University of Richmond in Virginia. In his book "Race and the Rise of Standard American," he offers a more complex, and darker, explanation.

His thesis is this: In the early years of radio, the powers that be within the nascent broadcast media chose "Midwestern" as the standard pronunciation for announcers, rather than the accent of New York City, which was, after all, where they were located. Their motivation was to avoid an accent that, at a time of what he calls "government-sponsored xenophobia," had been stigmatized as the speech of "foreigners."


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