Friday, September 12, 2008

Obama's dialect

The ever-perceptive Prof. U. emailed a couple days back with this:
I'm sitting here listening to NPR, which was quoting bits of the Obama speech - the one with lipstick in it - but prior to the lovely lipstick line, he was using the word 'policy' quite a bit, and I noticed that the final vowel sounded rather reduced - not all the way but definitely on the way - much as the final schwa or barred 'i' in the word "Missouri" as pronounced by some local speakers there.
Hmmmm, there's something to that. With Palin's accent, I cooked a big batch of stone soup — throwing the question out there and listening to wide array of interesting and often really insightful responses. So …

What else is salient about his English? I don't recall him having Low Back Merger (cot/caught), though he uses the word daughter(s) often, of course.

Whatever his dialect, he's about change, and I'm waiting to hear him questioned earnestly about his views on change in contemporary American English.

6 comments:

Ellen K. said...

Being from Missouri and still living quite close to the state, I'm curious about the claim regarding how some Missourians pronounce Missouri. The two prounciations of Missouri are Missour-ee and Missour-uh. -ee would match the normal pronunciation of policy. And I'm not seeing his description as fitting Missour-uh. Then again, I don't encounter the Missour-uh sayers too often, and it could be he hears the differently than what my memory is telling me.

Brains said...

Allow me to gripe on an annoying instance of erroneous word borrowing across languages (whatever the linguistic term for that is). English speakers think "mano a mano" means man-to-man, so in this oped today about Palin & Gibson (http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601088&sid=aQZCcugKlf5k&refer=home) the author writes, "mano a womano."

Grrr. La mano is Spanish for hand. El hombre is Spanish for man, in case anyone was wondering.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, the mano a mano thing has been beaten around on language blogs a lot, including here. As often, the definitive discussion is on Language Log.

Ellen, you raise an interesting point ... I vaguely remember seeing something on the subject; I'll see if I can find it.

The Elephant's Child said...

I apologize in advance for my ignorance of phonetics. To my ears, the vowel Obama uses at the end of words like "policy" sounds like what I was taught to call a short i more than 40 years ago. That is, it's the vowel in "this". I associate that "final short i" with African American speech. Examples would be speeches I've heard by Jesse Jackson and Harold Washington, two other familiar Chicago politicians. In fact, a lot of things about Obama's speechifying, such as his intonation and rolling periods, remind me of African American preaching. I am not sure where Obama would have picked this up, since he was raised abroad. My own guess is that he adopted it during his community organizing days as a way to build rapport with those he addressed then. His rhetorical style and dialect haven't really changed since I first became aware of him as a candidate for the US senate. I wonder if there are recordings from an earlier period that would show how his speech habits developed. Does anyone know?

Shira (from Oak Park, IL, just outside Chicago)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Of course, if it's a Chicago thing, he might have just picked it up (that is, not with any motive). Many people's accents change to match those around them. Mine certainly did - I remember the first time I called home from Germany in the army and my sister told me "You sound like a Yankee!" I wasn't making any effort to do so, but I have lost much of the accent over the past 30 years.

Ben Zimmer said...

When Obama was teaching at Univ. of Chicago Law School, he'd say, "I got my name from Kenya, which is where my father's from, and I got my accent from Kansas, which is where my mother's from." Does he have a Kansan pronunciation of "Missouri"?