Monday, April 28, 2008

Linguistics in the news: Jeremiah Wright

Don't have time for detailed comments right now, but I have to note that Jeremiah Wright's speech to the NAACP (transcript, what looks to be an imperfect one, here) has some linguistics in it, drawing on Geneva Smitherman's 1986 classic, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (see here). His big point is on the value assigned to social differences in speech:
Different does not mean deficient. Linguists have known since the mid 20th century that number one, nobody in Detroit, with the exception of citizens born and raised in the United Kingdom, nobody in Detroit speaks English. We all speak different varieties of American. If you don't believe me, go to the United Kingdom. As soon as you open your mouth in the United Kingdom, they'll say oh you're from America. Because they hear you speak in American. Linguists knew that nobody in here speaks English, but only black children 50 years ago were singled out as speaking bad English.
He goes on to talk about the social evaluation of speech differences:
You know, Ed Kennedy today cannot pronounce cluster consonants. Very few people from Boston can. They pronounce park like it's p-o-c-k. Where did you "pock" the car? They pronounce f-o-r-t like it's f-o-u-g-h-t. We fought a good battle. And nobody says to a Kennedy you speak bad English. Only to a black child was that said.
The peevologists will quibble about his definition of English versus American, though a surprising number of people draw that distinction. And various points are pretty imprecisely formulated, certainly. But it is good to hear somebody talk about the social evaluation of r-lessness.

Update, April 29, 7:20 a.m.: As indicated, I dashed off the above post yesterday afternoon between other obligations, to call attention to the story, and I chose even not to touch the errors (now laid out in detail here). Even with plenty of time, I would have steered very clear of the politics of this, because I don't yet know what Wright is doing. I'm intrigued by one suggestion coming up now in comments on radio and TV. It's maybe been best laid out in Bob Herbert's column in the NYT this morning. His bottom line is this:
My guess is that Mr. Wright felt he’d been thrown under a bus by an ungrateful congregant who had benefited mightily from his association with the church and who should have rallied to his former pastor’s defense. What we’re witnessing now is Rev. Wright’s “I’ll show you!” tour.


Anonymous said...

So, is this the least controversial part of the speech -- even if he was wrong about a lot of details?

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, maybe. He certainly seems to have been more imprecise on more fronts than this one: