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Dialectics of dialect

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | September 19, 2014

There are many interesting tales to tell about the current NFL scandals; many have been told, eloquently and well. But some seemingly minor points have been overlooked, and should not be, especially as their understanding extends well beyond the range of the NFL.

When Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back, was questioned about his arrest on child abuse charges, he responded, approximately, that his “daddy” had “whooped” him, and it had done him no harm, so he saw no problem in “whoopin” his four-year-old son for unspecified misbehavior.

It seemed to me that the child must have committed a serious misdeed, since Peterson had beaten him with a “switch” – a tree-branch – which of course would have made the blows more severe, by a simple principle of physics. Moreover, you only need to look at Mr. Peterson to see that what he had administered was no love-tap: he has huge muscled arms capable (especially with the switch) of causing real pain: welts and bruises all over the child’s back, according to the doctor who reported the event.

Interestingly too, after this report another came out about yet another four year old child of Peterson’s, by another mother, who had also been beaten. Between playin the whoopee necessary to produce two children concurrently by two women, and the whoopins, it’s hard to imagine where Mr. Peterson finds time to play football.

But I digress. What I want to talk about here is how Mr. Peterson has talked about the events above and how his choices might affect our interpretation of those events.

I note two linguistic choices that Mr. Peterson made use of: he referred to his father as his “daddy,” and he described both the father’s beatings of him, and his of his son (or sons) as “whoopin.” Both of these are instances of the use of a nonstandard (American southern) dialect, although elsewhere in his discourse Mr. Peterson uses essentially Standard American English. (While children, and sometimes women, who speak standard American English might say “daddy,” non-dialect using males would almost certainly not. “Whoop,” more often spelled “whup,” is equivalent to the standard form, “whip.”) So what might be behind these particular choices and how might they dictate our responses?

Contrast the following two sentences:

My father whipped me.
My daddy whooped me.

Semantically they are identical: they have the same meaning, in the sense that one could never be true in case the other was false. But pragmatically – in terms of the utterance’s emotional effects on hearers – they are quite different.

The first sounds serious and frightening. It is a report of an abusive action. There is nothing casual, amusing, or “fun” about it. But it is possible to understand the speaker of the second example (if you don’t give it too much thought) as reporting a trivial or playful event as an amusing story. Nonstandard dialect, when the rest of the discourse is expressed in Standard English, may have that effect. One further effect is that hearers need not become engaged: since it’s just a cute anecdote, no further action on their part is necessary. The use of nonstandard dialect relieves hearers of the obligation that a more serious-sounding charge would entail.

President Obama’s g’s and “folks”

But you don’t have to be an NFL running back, or even a child abuser, to play dialect games. Our president, who is neither, does it too. Mr. Obama is of course an exemplary speaker of an academic form of Standard American English, a tad more formal than that used by most speakers most of the time. (It is this slight formality that encourages people to hear him as aloof and even arrogant, especially since he is black and by his style of speech violates racial stereotypes.)

But Obama occasionally makes use of forms that come out of the same southern dialect used by Adrian Peterson. (It is no accident that southern American dialects generally tend to pragmatically convey relaxation and informality, as New York dialect suggests aggressiveness and impersonality. In neither case is the assumption necessarily correct, but that’s how people hear it.)

The president departs from the standard in two especially noteworthy ways: he does what is usually called “dropping his g’s,” and he refers to humans in the plural as “folks.” (There is actually no “g” to drop in the present participle of the English verb, e.g. “dropping.” The “g” is a mere spelling convention, indicating that the nasal that ends the word is pronounced by constriction of the vocal tract at the velum – the soft palate – as is also true of “g.” So in fact “droppin” is an example of fronting the nasal consonant – moving the constriction from the velum at the back of the mouth to the alveolar ridge behind the top incisors.)

So the president often engages in nasal fronting. (Yes, I know it sounds disgusting, but he does.) Nasal fronting is characteristic of a great many nonstandard English dialects, and has been borrowed into the standard by many of its speakers as a way of suggesting that they are non-glib, sincere, salt of the earthy types. I have heard lots of professors, including me, doing just that, usually when we are making a point we feel strongly about.

Although I have not studied this in detail, I would bet that the president makes use of this trait most often when he is trying to express his solidarity with ordinary people, for instance talking about jobs or health care – matters we discuss as parts of our everyday, “normal,” lives – and much less if at all when talking about international and existential decisions in which an ordinary citizen has no direct input, like how to deal with ISIS/ISIL. While the fronted and velar nasals do not affect the semantics of an utterance, they do have pragmatic impact: one suggests that the president is like us and understands our needs; the other sets him apart as a world leader who has to make decisions on his own.

The president’s other frequent dialectal choice often annoys and confounds speakers who do not, because they do not speak the dialect from which it is borrowed, as annoying and even weird: his use of “folks” where others like me would invariably use “people.” Thus compare your feelings about the following two examples:

Some folks are havin trouble findin jobs.
Some people are having trouble finding jobs.

If you are from somewhere other than the southern U.S., you may well hear the first as somehow manipulative: he’s trying to wring sympathy from your cold heart, or showing that he understands you and feels your pain. (President Clinton also uses “folks,” but since the rest of his speech is at least sometimes southern, we figure it’s just the way he is, rather than that he’s up to something.)

The second example sounds more formal, disengaged, and unemotional. We might expect, then, that when the president is talking about persons for whom he feels no sympathy, he might use the standard, and emotion-free, “people.” But oddly, he has referred to Al Qaida and ISIS/ISIL and similar groups, on occasion, as “folks,” which I for one always find disconcerting, as if he were trying to cozy up to them – which of course is not the case. So there is a contradiction, and his choice makes no sense.

“Folks” is not part of his original dialect, and certainly not characteristically Hawaiian. His mother and grandparents, who raised him, were originally from Kansas, which is well within “folks” territory. But kids normally pick up their language from their peers rather than their parents, so even if his American ancestors were “folksy,” it is probable that “folks” = “people” was something President Obama learned as an adult, perhaps as a politician. (A lot of politicians seem to be adopting it, perhaps because it sounds so down-home and, you know, trustworthy.)

I should note, to avoid confusion, that non-southerners like me do have a related form in our dialects. So I can speak of “folk songs,” or “folk etymologies,” meaning those of the common (and uneducated) people. But even those people are never, for us, “folks.”

So when a person in the public eye uses the forms of a dialect that he otherwise doesn’t speak, he is probably trying to project himself as someone other than he actually is. This may or may not be fully conscious, and need not be thought of as deliberately deceptive: we all are different things in different contexts to different people: our spouses, our children, our co-workers, our friends, our superiors. But when we encounter these special choices, we should ask what the speaker might be trying to accomplish by using them.

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