Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hillary Clinton's Accent

I notice that Hillary Clinton has come in for some criticism for slipping into a Southern accent when talking at a black church. It sounds horribly fake, to be sure.

Still, I have a bit of sympathy. I've done the same sort of thing myself, as have friends of mine. One of my best friends from college ("M") is from a small town in rural Georgia. My wife always makes fun of me because whenever I talk to M on the phone, or hang out with him, I start talking in a deeper Southern accent. She says it sounds fake, but I don't even notice that I'm doing it -- it just slips right out.

And I've seen M do the same thing himself. Last year, when the family visited Georgia, I hung out with M one night. We looked up another old friend -- "T." T is black, and he grew up with M in that same rural Georgia town (they were later roommates in college, which is how I got to know T -- in fact, I wrote about T before, in this post).
Anyway, the phone rings; M answers; and soon as M says, "Hey, man!," with about three syllables in each word, I knew that it was T on the other end. Whenever M is around T, he starts talking black.

Black people do it too, all the time -- that is, switch between standard English and black vernacular English, depending on the audience. Linguists call it "code-switching," which seems to be a fancy term for, "talking like the people you're hanging out with."

It's a natural urge: When in Rome, talk as the Romans do. Some people expressly promote the use of verbal "mirroring", so as to build rapport. Indeed, the failure to talk like your audience can sometimes be dangerous.

All of which is to say that I can't blame Hillary Clinton -- she may well not have even intended to talk that way at all; it just might have come out that way under the circumstances.

4 Comments:

Blogger Michael Simpson said...

That's plausible, but *only* if it's the case that you can find another instance in which she talked similarly. And since we've seen nothing like that - and surely her defenders would like to point it out - your charity toward Sen. Clinton is probably misplaced.

1:05 PM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

When I was a young boy, my family moved to an undisclosed third-world country. For roughly six months, my native Yank accent persevered without any discernible foreign (or rather, I guess, native) inflection.

Then one day while engaged in an intense game of cricket, I burst out angrily at one of my schoolmates: "Mah', Grahnt--lef' dee bohwl!" ("Man, Grant, leave the ball.") There was much amusement at the American boy's ejaculation in the native dialect. But it was totally spontaneous, and the dialect thereafter became my standard tongue when discoursing with my native schoolmates. And I'd always revert to high Yank when back home talking to my folks.

Still, I'd like to think my accent was better than Hillary's.

8:06 PM  
Blogger M. Sean said...

You may have lived some time in the South. I have as well, and I find that I can slip back to the Southr'n accent quite readily when I am back there.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

What I thought was funny about all this wasn't that Hillary came under fire for this. It's that they didn't bother to mention that Barack Obama had done the same thing. What I heard of his speech sounded like Southern black preaching. Yet most of the time he sounds like a white midwesterner.

11:49 AM  

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