For a President Today, Talkin' Down Is Speaking American
Peggy Noonan has joined the chorus of people who think that when President Obama hips it up a little when he talks, he is compromising the dignity of his office and even dividing the country. “He shouldn't be out there,” she wrote, “dropping his g's, slouching around a podium, complaining about his ill treatment, describing his opponents with disdain: ‘Stop just hatin' all the time.’”
No, Ms. Noonan. You and the rest -- and some of you are black -- need to realize that when Obama does things like “dropping his g’s,” he is enhancing the dignity of his office and helping bring the country together.
First, let’s get the “fake” part out of the way.
I have encountered more than a few who seem honestly to think that when Obama, who generally speaks in a vanilla standard way, uses some black inflection or slang with black audiences, he is being fake. They assume that someone who can sound like Bryant Gumbel could not mean it when he mixes in a little Dave Chappelle. He must be pretending to be something, striking some kind of clumsy tribal note.
Wrong. Obama is doing something most black Americans do: using a special repertoire that has a function, to connote warmth and connection. Linguists call it Black English. If Obama is phony in switching into it to strike a certain note, then millions of black people are spending their entire lives being linguistically inauthentic. Doubtful.
And -- we must be under no impression that Black English is simply the things generally thought of as slang (or, with less scientific justification, errors) such as ain’t and good old aks for ask. Black English is a whole spice rack beyond this.
Take “folks,” for example, which Obama used in his mentioning that, “We tortured some folks.” To many, it sounded like he was trivializing the gravest of issues. But black speakers (and many whites as well) tend to substitute “folks” for “people” to indicate a sense of affection for, or identification with, the people in question. Black academic types (such as Obama) are especially given to saying “black folks” as a way of indicating that they do not feel superior to ordinary black people despite their own success. Obama’s extension of it to discussing the war on terror was unsurprising.
Black English is also intonation, which is a powerful rhetorical tool. When Obama was intoning “Yes we can!”, it was the music of it that made it sound plausible. John Edwards couldn’t have pulled it off at gunpoint. He isn’t black and so that intonation wouldn’t come naturally to him (and if he imitated it, that would look fake).
Now, on to the “dividing the country” part.
Some readers will be asking whether this speaking style is really a black thing, and they’re on to something. Now, there indeed is a way of speaking -- a certain combination of grammatical patterns and vowel cadences – that is particular to black people. Linguists have documented it exhaustively – it’s why we can tell a “black voice” even when the person is not using any “slang.”
However, standard-speaking whites have a “warm” English they can slide into as well. Think of George W. Bush as well as his father, both of whom are quite given to “g-dropping.” Or think of Sarah Palin—who, by the way, was rebuked by Noonan in a 2008 column for the same crime of g-dropping, which she commits far more incessantly than Obama does. Bill Clinton can summon a “warm” air as well, with his Southern background – so intertwined with the black heritage – playing a significant part in that.
And note that in the case of all the above, the vernacular aspect of their speech has played a part in branding them as dummies in some quarters. Recall Dana Carvey’s imitation of Bush pere with the goofily short sentences, and the dismissal of Clinton as a hillbilly.
Thus the idea that brainy, Harvard-educated Obama couldn’t actually mean it when he starts doing his “in’” for “-ing” and such. Surely, that kind of speech is stupid; he’s “playing dumb.” No. He is, like the Bushes and Bill, being a modern American. Gone are the days when the proper representation of that voice is that of a Disney announcer.
To be able to speak to modern America pretty much requires being able to switch between the formal and the vernacular to some extent. As archetypically “presidential” as Mitt Romney seemed, his perfectly square, gee whiz speech style was part of what did him in.
In today’s America, to not be able to get down, or at least pretend to, is to be inarticulate. We live in a distinctly swaggery age.
Obama, then, speaks a larger English than Romney – or Reagan, or Kennedy. It complements the fact that he is the first president since Martin Van Buren, who grew up speaking Dutch and broke into it when angry, to be raised in a household where more than just English was spoken. It’s stupid enough that Obama has to downplay his command of Indonesian to avoid looking like a Muslim; must we jump him for using the Black English spice kit?
To the Peggy Noonans among us who cringe when Obama talks “down”: This is a deeply informal country. Unless you’re ready to start wearing hoop skirts, stick to waltzes, frame your emails with “Dear” and “Yours Truly,” and roundly condemn all sex outside of the benefit of clergy, you must get used to presidents dropping g’s. It’s what a president of this nation in these times should do now and then.