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The language of power in the anti-prestige age

How Presidents avoid sounding elite.

You're not likely to hear this on NPR, or the CBC, or—God forbid—the BBC:

"The last few days have seen protests spreadin' throughout the Arab world, and leaders there are becomin' increasingly nervous about the possibility of large-scale unrest landin' on their doorsteps. Containin' the uprisings is provin' to be an unexpected challenge for dictators who have become accustomed to holdin' on to power for decades."

We expect broadcasters at national radio outlets to have a little bit of linguistic class, and this includes not dropping g's* and turning ing into in', pronouncing nuclear as nucular, or seasoning their speech with generous dashes of double negatives. All of these are markers of non-standard speech and, like using the wrong fork at dinner or being seen in public with shrimp cocktail toes, can catapult a hopeful professional straight out of a respectable social class.

People can be unforgiving in their judgments of speakers whose speech is sprinkled with non-standard elements. In a 2006 study led by socio-linguist Bill Labov, people heard recordings by an (alleged) aspiring radio broadcaster; if the speaker deigned to drop g's a mere one tenth of the time, thirty percent of listeners suggested that he try another line of work.

But Presidents, it seems, are an entirely different matter.

In the political world, too much prestige is a liability, and strategists counsel candidates to downplay their Ivy League credentials—and, if they did have the poor taste to acquire a Yale degree, to be sure to emphasize the fact that they earned only middling grades.

Maybe this is simply one part of an ongoing marketing trend in which products and Presidents alike are pitched using messaging that mirrors the audience. In their book The Ego Boom, journalists Steve Maich and Lianne George document a shift away from aspirational marketing, in which consumers are sold the selves they could become, and towards affirmational marketing, which sells them on the idea that they are perfect just the way they are. Hence the rise of ads that validate a particular social identity, like a set of TV spots that McDonald's aired in New England, complete with a quirky local lexicon and regional accent. More and more, it seems, we want to know that Presidents and fast food companies alike "get" who we are.

So what could be more reassuring than a few non-standard stylings to let us know that our politicians are in touch with ordinary voters like us? A political candidate emulating the linguistic standards of a radio broadcaster would sound like—well, like Al Gore. And even Barack Obama, not usually known for folksy speech (can't think of a single "nucular" attributed to him) turns out to be a promiscuous g-dropper. In fact, in one 4-minute clip of a political campaign speech in Louisville, Kentucky, he racks up a g-droppin' rate of nearly 75%, a fact which doesn't seem to have impeded him from getting elected. It may well have helped. During the 2008 election, Obama's campaign worked hard to wipe off the smudges of too much prestige. In one famous incident, a remark about the price of arugula was, as journalist Evan Thomas put it, pounced upon as "an opportunity to paint Obama as a Harvard toff who nibbles daintily at designer salads while the working man, worried about layoffs at the plant, belts another shot."

But Obama's non-standard language is very selectively applied. His State of the Union address was delivered with impeccable radio broadcaster enunciation. And in many of his speeches where he does drop g's, if you pay close attention, you'll hear that there's a pattern: when he talks about policy and legislation, he'll use the buttoned-up ing form. The non-standard in' turns up when he's expressing concern for regular Americans or when he's bonding with the audience.

Here's a snippet of a speech in which he addresses supporters at Organizing for America. Notice when the g-dropping shift happens:

"We passed a law that will prevent our children from being targeted by big tobacco companies.... We've begun to put in place a new national policy aimed at both increasing fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gas pollution for all new trucks and cars.... That's in the first nine months. The fact is, we've already had one of the most productive first years of any administration in decades. That's because of you. That's because of the work you did. That's what knockin' on doors and makin' phone calls was all about."

The same thing happened in Obama's speeches during the televised bipartisan meeting for health care reform. Dropped g's tended to show up when the talk turned away from the nuts and bolts of the legislation and towards its potential impact on ordinary people:

"Because the truth of the matter is, they're not premiers of anyplace, they're not sultans from wherever. They don't fly in to the Mayo and suddenly decide they're gonna spend a couple million dollars on the absolute best health care. They're folks who are left out. The vast majority of ...the people we're talkin' about, they work. Every day. Some of ‘em work two jobs. But if they're workin' for a small business, they can't get health care."

And that Kentucky speech with the 75% rate of g-dropping? It begins with the words: "This election is about you."

Obama is by no means the only person to skillfully (and maybe unconsciously) use non-standard forms to emotionally color a message. Radio announcers do sometimes use less prestigious forms, tailoring them to specific audiences. And a linguistic study of fraternity men showed that some of them dropped their g's in ways that parallel President Obama's linguistic style: to underscore a working class identity and create a sense of camaraderie.

Like Obama, they may have understood that the key to power lies in balancing impressions of competence with the ability to "get it".

*Note: The term g-dropping is really a misnomer: There's actually no g sound to drop in a word like doing. When someone says doin' instead, he's simply substituting one type of nasal sound for another.

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