Wednesday, January 21, 2009

McWhorter on Obama's address

Obama won because he pronounces it historih. That's a flat oversimplification of John McWhorter's short essay at The New Republic.

But it is an interesting piece. Consider McWhorter's claim that

Black English is a matter not just of slang, but of sentence structure and sound (why you can tell most black people's race over the phone, which is proven in studies).

I'm no mindreader, but I assume he mentioned studies in anticipation of those who would think such claims of 'hearing' race are based mostly on prejudice. One major introductory linguistics text includes in a list of language myths: You can almost always recognize someone's background by the way he talks.

Of course McWhorter's claim isn't so wide. It's true that some dialect markers are very apparent. It's also true that some regions and backgrounds and cultures have distinct dialects. I remember that during the first OJ Simpson trial one witness claimed to hear a black man talking. OJ's defense team jumped on this claim saying that it was impossible to tell race by sound.

And that's true. But McWhorter could easily defend his claim with nuance. First of all, "most" is very different from "almost always." He might also agree that dialect markers are circumstantial evidence. And tho I don't know the studies he's referencing,* I imagine there is a correlation that makes the case defensible: that from hearing only speech, some inferences are easier to make than others. And tho our ears might alert us to details that sometimes serve as clues, that doesn't mean they give us knowledge of race.

He's obviously thinking about this, writing later in the article:

It is not uncommon to hear a group of teenagers speaking in Black English, and find when they pass by that they are actually Latino, Asian, or with the cohort under about 25, white.

McWhorter is well-informed about the history of this language. I'm on the fence about his politics, but his linguistic scholarship is reliable. I don't fussily discard his statement regarding "pitch" in speech when he observes that Obama often ends sentences on a higher pitch than, say, Tom Brokaw would. It's probably true since Tom Brokaw often speaks with a very low voice and the frequency is going to be lower just because he sounds like a bass and Obama... maybe a baritone. But I assume McWhorter is talking about the more important feature of tone or contour.

When he suggests that Obama, in saying responsibility, used pitch and pronunciation in a way that is warp and woof of the grammar of, for example, his father's native language Luo, I'm more interested than skeptical.

* see comments


  1. I hope you saw this.

    One question: Is describing a claim to be able to "hear" race as "prejudice" different than describing the claim as "presumptuous?"

  2. He's probably indirectly referencing Purnell, Idsardi & Baugh (1999) and other things by Baugh.

  3. casey: saw it. and i thought it worked better as humor than commentary. those statements were hardly what made bush so objectionable to so many people.

    and there probably isn't much of a difference between prejudice and presumption. there are some important connotative differences of course. but why do you ask?

    squires: my thanks for the reference. once i saw the mention of housing applications in the study i recognized the work. cheers.

  4. I would agree with McWhorter, though it doesn't seem like he overtly says it, that there is a style of speech which is "black" but which is used by many who are not black, and - as importantly - not used by many who are black - from my childhood I can name Charlie Pride and Johnny Mathis. In fact, I knew lots of people who were stunned when they saw their first picture of Charlie Pride.

  5. How do you suppose the fellow interviewed here would be perceived in one of those racial identification tests?

  6. And I should add that all of this of course only applies in the US - listen to British blacks, for instance.


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