Sunday

September 24th, 2017

Insight

Hear America talking

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published March 8, 2017

Hear America talking

You gotta accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

Latch on to the affirmative

But don't mess with Mr. In-Between ...

Forget that old saying about manners making the man. It's our accents that make us -- or betray us. Back in the early 1960s, when I'd first come to town as the Pine Bluff Commercial's new editorial writer, my radio-trained American accent roused suspicions. "What part of the No'th you from?" I'd be asked. At which point it became obligatory to stress my Southern roots. "Why, my grandfather and namesake made grits," I'd explain, which was true enough. But not very.

A partial truth can be as deceptive as a lie, and not nearly as honest. There was no need to go into detail and add that Pesach Gritzer had made those grits in his shtetl back in the old country, following his horse 'round and 'round the grindstone. And when the poor beast was off his feed, my grandfather would take his place. But enough said. Discretion can be the better part of valor under some circumstances.

I am indebted to the National Review's invaluable Kevin Williamson for the subject of today's column. His piece ("Voice of America") goes into detail about the influence our accent has on how we're perceived by others, and he in turn is indebted to William Labov's scrupulously scholarly article, "The Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores," a work of sociolinguistics that is as authoritative as John James Audubon's guide to North American avians. One of the many points Mr. Williamson makes is that most Americans equate an ordinary Southern accent with yahoos no matter how cultivated said Southerner may be in real life.


Whether the speaker pronounces his Rs in any context but the beginning of a word, for example, can be a telltale marker of class. No lesser artists than Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe of "Guys and Dolls" fame can be relied on as guides to Americans' linguistic preferences and prejudices. ("At Wanamaker's and Saks and Klein's/A lesson I've been taught:/ You can't get alterations/On a dress you haven't bought....") Where you shopped was who you were in the eyes of others. The clerks at Klein's, for example, would likely speak working-class English, those at Macy's would favor vaguely middle-class Americanese, and those at Saks would come closest to being thought of as speaking "proper English." I can remember a clerk at one New York department store turning up her nose when a Southern girl didn't produce her credit card in a New York minute. To which said Southern girl responded, "Well, Ah'm a-fixin' to!" Which only increased the clerk's disdain.

You couldn't hope to find a nicer breed of American than the Midwesterner in his native habitat in and around Chicago, Ill., which is where Hillary Clinton hails from, having been born and reared in a high-tone suburb of that urban hub. Even today she lacks the verbal agility that marked her husband's shape-shifting rise in American politics. Bill Clinton could be anything you wanted him to be and say anything you wanted to hear in just the right tones. And doubtless still can, bless his much repaired heart.

To quote Kevin Williamson, our boy Bill "could be a phony redneck, a phony intellectual, a phony Baptist preacher -- but Mrs. Clinton mostly sounded like an authentic vice principal, but the awful kind of vice principal who sometimes swallows her existential rage for a minute and tries to be cool and speak to the kids in their own language." A fellow has to wonder if she's got an authentic bone in her body.

Whatever our oh-so-superior types have to say about our new president Donald Trump always sounds like Donald Trump, which leads Kevin Williamson to opine: "Trump may sound like an oleaginous operator from Queens who is just about to ask, 'What do I have to do to get you into this Buick?' but he has the advantage of sounding like that all the time, which gives him a perverse patina of authenticity.

"One of the lessons of Trump's 2016 victory may very well end up being that, the excellence of Rick Perry notwithstanding, Republicans shouldn't nominate another presidential candidate from Texas -- or even from the South -- for a good long while. Michigan, South Florida, California, Maine -- any place where the locals don't sound like they might offer to pray for you if you send them money. That's part of the value of Trump-speak: They can call Trump a Hitler, but they can't call him a hayseed, and if we have reached a point where all presidential politics is Kulturkampf, then that matters and will matter even more in the future. I think Alec Baldwin's Trump impersonation is pretty funny, but I do not think it probably sounds as funny in Ohio union halls or in the downwardly mobile parts of Pennsylvania."

Kevin Williamson adds this piece of sound advice for political buffs: "If you want to understand the voice of American populism, consider paying some attention to the voices of the populists."

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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