As Pakistan becomes increasingly permeated by the culture, fashions and lifestyle of the West, it’s also beginning to adopt some its most interesting social nuances.  

As a matter of fact, given that in much of urban Pakistan being westernized in manner and speech is a valuable commodity and even a coveted marker of social distinction, some of the fashions that serve to differentiate the upper and lower classes in Western societies assume an even more delightful form here. Enter thus what I’ve dubbed ‘the Ivy League lie detector.’ If you’re irritated by improvised American accents or just general verbal pretense, you will not be disappointed.

Before we get to the good stuff though, let’s do a small exercise.

Note: If you can record yourself doing this exercise, or in the negative at least get a partner to hear you, that would be ideal.

As for the exercise: please say out loud, ‘I went to Harvard.’ Done? Great, that’s all.

In 1972 famed University of Pennsylvania sociolinguist William Labov published a paper titled ‘The Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores.’ Labov had a certain hypothesis, which he put to the test in three popular department stores. In each store, he would approach numerous salespersons, and then proceed with inquiring of them, ‘Excuse me, where are the women’s shoes?’ The answer, as he already knew, was in all cases ‘Fourth Floor.’ Labov’s interest was in the fact that one store catered to affluent class clientele, the second to middle class ones and the third to working class ones. And he wanted to establish whether his hypothesis was valid even along the minutest differences in social stratification - such as to even be evident when contrasting salespersons who, while essentially in the same occupational group, were merely working at department stores of different prestige.

And his hypothesis held up beautifully. Quite simply, for inhabitants of New York City, the more high class you are, the more you stress the pronunciation of the letter ‘r.’

Labov himself may have been taken by surprise at the widespread usage and popularity of his findings. Soon, it became an American thing altogether. As a matter of fact, Labov’s principle was so robust, and met with such impeccable practical use, that it soon got taken up in detective work, as portrayed in Ken Follet’s novel The Hammer of Eden. In the novel, a sociolinguist uses the phenomenon to help build the profile of a woman who is blackmailing the California state governor by leaving messages on a tape recorder. The woman is trying to get popular support and so is purposefully using vulgar slang in her speech to appear blue-collar. But the authorities aren’t being fooled, and quickly identify ‘a kind of Patty Hearst figure.’

“..she pronounces the word ‘recorder’ very correctly. A blue-collar type would say ‘recawduh,’ pronouncing only the first r. The average college graduate says ‘recorduh,’ pronouncing the second r distinctly. Only very superior people say ‘recorder’ the way she does, carefully pronouncing all three r’s.” (Follett, 1998)

Hahwuhd. Harvuhd. Harvarrd.

Almost fifty years later, this phenomenon has assumed such pertinence in our society that it’s almost like a secret that’s too good to share. After several years of enjoying myself with its use, however, I finally wanted to let the secret out. Not the least, since we brushed on the issue of verbal pretense, I wanted to profess my own guilt. Back when I felt that it was unreasonable for it to be expected that I must accommodate the written word in my routine, with my English speaking skills neatly matching that wonderful sentiment, I proceeded to conveniently ‘upgrade’ the appearance of my spoken English by forsaking my Rs: better became ‘bettuh’, paper became ‘papuh’, butter became ‘buttuh’ and I, not surprisingly, just a bit less ‘populuh.’

There is one caveat to the use of the Ivy League lie detector in our society though: if one is speaking with a legitimate British accent, then they will not be entertaining elective cases of the pronunciation of ‘r’, no matter how high class they are.

I have for so many years felt that, if you choose to build a life devoid of intellectually rewarding activities, you can still enjoy great wealth, great beauty and great popularity. But you will always, always be surrounded by mediocre people. And then there will be subtleties in your personality that will attest to that.

One can certainly claim that not pronouncing a letter of the alphabet has no intrinsic humaneness to it. So what? And that’s a perfectly valid claim; there actually is no intrinsic humaneness to it. On closer, more responsible inspection though - the beauty of social science - it is a nuance that reflects the quality of company and social and cultural influences, respectively, that you have afforded your life with. And that is most profoundly reflective of where you stand in life.

Or maybe you should just forget all that ostentatious gibberish and keep the Ivy League lie detector handy through the next broadcast of an award ceremony at Bollywood.

 The writer is the head of Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative. Scholars by Profession is a research workshop that initially came together as a research club on the eve of 2011.