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A Sociolinguistic Investigation of the Pronunciation of Swarthmore

Lesley Goodman '06 and Ruth Halvey '06


This paper is an investigation of the pronunciation of "Swarthmore" in its context as the name of a college and the name of a town. There are two easily observable polar pronunciations: [SwaRthmore] and [Swa_thmore]. We refer to these pronunciations as having included or omitted an [r], although of course this simplifies the phonetic differences. When we first arrived at Swarthmore College as freshmen, we were aware of the two pronunciations and were faced with the question of which pronunciation to adopt. Why do these two pronunciations exist? Who uses which and for what purpose? Which one is "correct"? With nearly two and a half years to consider these questions, it was our anecdotal observation that nearly all students end up retaining the [r] while residents of the Swarthmore area who are unassociated with the College drop it. The purpose of this paper is to confirm or refute these observations and to suggest possible reasons for variation in the pronunciation.

On the assumption that pronunciation is stratified according to association with the College, we decided to study four groups of people with different relationships to the school and to the Borough. We surveyed freshman and seniors separately, hypothesizing that freshmen, newly affiliated with the College, might drop the [r] more frequently than seniors, who have been at the College for just over three years. We surveyed staff expecting the majority to retain the [r] in order to mark their affiliation with the potential prestige of Swarthmore College, given that the local pronunciation of the name of the town (and following that, the name of the college as well) presumably drops the [r]. We also surveyed two highly visible members of the administration, less for statistical purposes than to consider their opinions on the matter. We thus hypothesized that the [r] in Swarthmore is a lexical marker of affiliation with the College. If this is so, then one might expect there to be a difference between the pronunciations of the name of the College and the name of the Borough, since it is presumably only the College that carries prestige that may come with an institution of higher learning.


Our results confirmed our initial observations that the local pronunciation drops the [r] and that the student pronunciation almost always retains the [r]. We also obtained the surprising result that the staff pronunciation drops the [r] as well. If we accept the local pronunciation as relatively stable, how do we account for the student and staff behavior? There are two ways to think about the pronunciations within these groups: as a reflection of attitudes towards the local Borough community and as a reflection of attitudes towards one another.

It should first be noted that as individuals, many students adopt the [r] pronunciation of Swarthmore as a result of norm enforcement (Chambers 75). That is, students arrive at Swarthmore from a number of geographic areas, often unsure of the "correct" pronunciation. The majority of the student community already at Swarthmore uses the [r] pronunciation and members of the new freshman class adopt accordingly, adapting to their new social networks. We attempted to account for this adjustment period by surveying freshmen and seniors separately: freshmen retained the [r] 73% of the time, while seniors retained the [r] 90% of the time. While these results might suggest some temporal adjustment, the difference in the numbers is not statistically significant. Based on our anecdotal experiences, we do believe that many students adjust their pronunciation in the first week or two at Swarthmore, but do not have hard evidence to support this. At any rate, norm enforcement accounts for individual behavior, but not the behavior of the community: it does not explain why the [r] pronunciation became the norm.

If the students' pronunciation is a reaction to the local pronunciation, then we must explain why the students would want to distinguish themselves from the locals. One potential explanation is rooted in student elitism. Due to the prestige of the College, many students' fairly high socio-economic background, intellectual elitism, and ambition, many students may feel (consciously or unconsciously) superior to local residents. There are certainly feelings of contempt towards at least one group of residents: local adolescents are commonly referred to derisively as "Ville Rats" and sneered at when they appear on campus, though not all students feel strongly on the matter. However, there is little indication that such hostility extends to other groups of local residents.

A more optimistic interpretation of the student attitude toward the locals as evidenced by pronunciation is simply that the students do not feel themselves to be a part of the local community. Many students rarely venture off campus, and if they do, they go to Philadelphia. Even students who live in the Ville do not develop community ties. For one thing, the vast majority of students are transitory. We are aware that we will leave the Borough and the College after four years. The students have no need to be tied to the community. All our needs are provided for us by the College and we usually have fewer needs than other age groups: there is less need for public services, such as hospitals and schools, and we do not even usually run the everyday errands of adults, such as going to the grocery store or the dry cleaners. The students and the locals coexist in the same basic geographic area, but we rarely interact or mingle as a single community, and this fact is reflected in the distinctive pronunciations of Swarthmore.

That the pronunciation is affected by one's attitude toward the local community is demonstrated by the behavior of one of the seniors, Meg. Though Meg consistently used the [r] pronunciation during the survey, we spoke with her afterward and she explained that with fellow students she used the [r] pronunciation but with outsiders she dropped the [r]. She began this practice when she spent a summer living on campus (when it is virtually deserted) and commuting into Philadelphia to work. Thus, she adopted the local pronunciation when her relationship with the local community was no longer totally mediated through the College; like many residents, she bought groceries, used public transportation, and worked in the city. Though Meg made a conscious decision to adapt her pronunciation, she demonstrates in reverse the attitude that may be the unconscious cause of many other students' behavior.

In contrast to the students, the staff is largely made up of residents of the area or nearby areas. Many are originally from the Swarthmore area; out of ten subjects, two are originally from Philadelphia, two from Upper Darby, and two from Ridley Park. Regardless of origin, nearly all staff members have presumably made the decision to settle here. For the staff, then, the local community is or will become their community and they overwhelmingly use the local pronunciation. A further investigation into the pronunciation of Swarthmore might find it useful to specifically ask staff members about their attitudes toward the community, how long they have lived in the area, and how long they plan to stay here, as in Labov's study of Martha's Vineyard. Indeed, in her article "Varieties of Variation in a Small Place: Social Homogeneity, Prestige Norms, and Linguistic Variation," Nancy C. Dorian laments the fact that many sociolinguists make Labovian presumptions about people's attitudes without providing or seeking any actual evidence; we would hardly want to be accused of that.

The staff's behavior cannot be fully explained through arguments about their attitudes toward the local community, for they also coexist with students. They have chosen the local pronunciation over the student pronunciation. While local residents might be unfamiliar with the student pronunciation, staff members were all aware that students pronounced the [r]. Indeed, two of the staff members we spoke with had clear opinions on this matter. Carrie, an administrative assistant in an academic department, made it clear that she believed students had the "wrong" pronunciation, adding that students are only here for four years and "don't know what they're doing" in her words. She defined herself sharply against the students, noting that students were transient members of the community; perhaps this suggests that she might not consider them "true" members of the community. In contrast to Carrie, Betty, who works in admissions, believes that the student pronunciation is the "correct" pronunciation. Betty's job involves answering phones and speaking with potential students (or family members of potential students). In fact, in the middle of the survey, the phone rang and she answered it "Swa_thmore College." Since she considered the student pronunciation correct and spoke frequently with potential students, we asked her why she maintained what she considered to be the incorrect pronunciation. Oddly, she had no answer for this: "I just do." Since Carrie clearly defines herself (specifically her pronunciation of Swarthmore) against the students, one might imagine that Betty is doing something similar by rigidly maintaining her "incorrect" pronunciation. Perhaps Betty is uncomfortable with an attitude that makes such a distinction between students and staff, but her pronunciation may be evidence that she participates in such an attitude nonetheless. It should be noted, of course, that we have no access to Betty's or any other subject's psychology: this is speculation that requires further investigation.

It is particularly striking that the staff would choose the local pronunciation over the student pronunciation because the concept of the marché linguistique predicts that the staff will adapt to the prestige setting, as in the case of King's 1992 study of the janitor in a French language school on Prince Edward Island, Canada (Chambers 196). We initially expected that staff members would adopt the College (as opposed to local) pronunciation in order to mark their affiliation with a reputable institution. That this did not occur indicates that the staff's must have attitudes toward the local community (perhaps of loyalty) or toward the students (perhaps of antipathy) that are relatively intense or resistant to change in order to have overcome a desire to mark prestige. Alternately, the staff might mark their affiliation in ways other than the pronunciation of Swarthmore, or they might be entirely uninterested in participating in the prestige of the College. Further investigation into staff attitudes toward the College would be useful.

It is important to note that just as the staff members may be defining themselves against the students, it is possible that the students are not only defining themselves against the local community, but are also defining themselves against the staff, alongside their attitudes toward the local community. This is a fine distinction, however, for staff members are often members of the local community. Just as students may feel some amount of elitism toward the local community, this may extend to staff members. It is also possible that elitism has nothing to do with the pronunciation difference, but rather that students see themselves as distinct from but not superior to the staff. It is an interesting phenomenon that staff members are aware of the student pronunciation, while we, as students, were unaware that the staff members did not use the [r] pronunciation. The disparity of insight might indicate that students are not distinguishing themselves from staff in the same way that staff members are distinguishing themselves from students. The staff members appear to be more in tune to the distinction between the groups than are the students.

Our results and our own experiences also show that not all students use the [r] pronunciation. We can only suggest potential explanations for those who do not conform to the student norm. Our discussion of student behaviors rests on the assumption that the pronunciation is inextricable from their lives as students at the College. While this is true for many students, others have prior knowledge of or experience with the name of the College that would make their pronunciation less adaptable when they actually arrive here (e.g., they might be from the area or have alumni family members). It could also be that the students who resist the [r] pronunciation do not share in the attitudes toward the local community that would lead them to distinguish themselves from it. Understanding why some students deviate from the norm, while an interesting question, is contingent upon understanding why the norm is the [r] pronunciation, the focus of this particular study.

Our interviews with President of the College Al Bloom and Registrar Martin Warner lend an interesting slant to this discussion. Both subjects dropped the [r] consistently. When asked about their perceptions of student behavior, they both indicated that they believed students also dropped the [r]. Bloom suggested also that the local pronunciation would retain the [r], implying an awareness of the distinction between the local community and the College community. The apparent unawareness of Bloom and Warner about student behavior is misleading; upon further questioning, Warner recalled several family members who had attended Swarthmore before he began working here who used the [r] pronunciation. Besides indicating that the pronunciation distinction has been around for a while, this also suggests that Warner (and by extension Bloom) is more aware of student behavior than he realizes. These two men, especially invested in the harmony of the Swarthmore College community and in protecting the town-gown relationship, might not wish to observe or admit that there are more divisions between students, staff, and local residents than one might hope for. At the same time, we as students did not want to acknowledge this either; there is a strong desire to see us all as part of the same community, as evidenced by student and administrative undertakings such as the Swarthmore College Living Wage and Democracy Campaign. While our study has demonstrated divisions between students, staff, and local residents, it is our personal observation that this desire to create a strong sense of community means that these divisions are not irreconcilable.


This study investigated the pronunciation of Swarthmore by freshmen, seniors, and staff members at the College and by local residents. Our results confirm our initial observations that the students dominantly retain the [r], producing [SwaRthmore] and that local residents overwhelmingly drop the [r], producing [Swa_thmore]. Our results also demonstrate that staff members follow the local pronunciation (dropping the [r]) failing to confirm our beliefs about the College as a linguistic market. Although conclusions must be tentative until further investigation can be conducted into subjects' psychological and social motives, we suggest that the differing pronunciations of students and staff are a result of two different relationships with the local community and possibly their relationships with one another. Thus, the pronunciation of Swarthmore does not so much mark affiliation with the College as it does affiliation with the local community.

Dorian, Nancy C.  "Varieties of Variation in a Small Place: Social Homogeneity, Prestige Norms, and Linguistic Variation."  Language 70 (4): 631-696.

Chambers, J.K.  Sociolinguistic Theory.  Second Edition.  Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

Labov, William.  "The Social Motivation of Sound Change."  Word 19: 273-309.

Sankoff, David and Suzanne Laberge. "The Linguistic Market and the Statistical Explanation of Variability." Linguistic Variation: Models and Methods. Ed. David Sankoff. New York: Academic Press, 1978. 239-249.

This paper was written for Professor Raimy's Linguistics 25:  Language, Culture, and Society.  Lesley Goodman in a senior honors English  major and  a History minor and is going on to study English in graduate school.  Ruth Halvey is a senior honors Spanish major and Art History minor.  They found collaboration on writing to be a challenging but character-building exercise.