Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2004 / 30 Tishrei 5765

Paul Greenberg

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W., the debate, and my big sister | Our dyslexic president made his usual goofs in the second presidential debate and heavyweight match, but by now no one really notices. It's as if the country had learned to translate him. Dyslexia is not an indication of low intelligence but a problem with the sound of words, as if a couple of wires had got crossed somewhere in there. In W.'s case, it's almost endearing.

At one point the president seemed to just give up on pronouncing the Italian prime minister's name, Silvi . . . Silvi . . . uh, the Italian prime minister. At another, he confused Senator Kerry with Senator Kennedy. (An understandable error.) Nor is he happy with these unfounded rumors about a revived draft that are being spread over the Internets.

Listening to this president is like tuning a radio to not quite the right frequency. There's always a little static interference. The president refused to sign the United States up for the International Criminal Court, he explained, because then Americans might be dragged before unaccounted judges. He surely meant unaccountable judges.

Between the president's speech and my hearing, there was a lot lost in the translation. And yet no one has any problem understanding exactly where George W. Bush stands.

All of which reminded me of . . . my big sister.

It's a long story, but it does have some connection to George W. Bush. I promise.

When my older sister entered the public schools of Chicago, Ill., at the age of 5, she spoke only Yiddish. But she soon picked up the rudiments of a pure, nasal Chicagoan. When the family moved to the South a few years later, she acquired both an overlay of Ark-La-Texan and some piquant Arabic phrases - because many of the other shopkeepers on Texas Avenue in Shreveport were Lebanese, then referred to as Syrians. We all lived above our stores in those days, and my sister still goes home (which for her will always be Shreveport) several times a year to visit her Syrian girlfriends, Imshallah, L-rd willing.

And when she married a Yankee during the war - he was stationed at Barksdale air base outside Shreveport - and moved to New York, she would adopt the sharp vowels of any other Lung-Island matron.

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The result is a linguistic combination you've got to hear to believe, and be delighted by. Her enunciation underneath all the layers is still Yiddish, her Y'all and manners in general Southern-sweet, her Arabic mainly pious imprecations - Haram! - and her New Yorkese tough.

But her malaprops are uniquely her own. I think my favorite was uttered after she'd been to Little Rock for a solemn occasion and was so impressed by the rabbi's words that she told me she was going to send a nice contribution to the congregation and earmark it for the rabbi's discrepancy fund. (Listen, every clergyman ought to have one.)

But my point - I'm getting there, I'm getting there - is that whenever some of her snootier friends kindly correct my sister's English, she draws herself up even higher than she normally is (she's a tall woman, being a first-generation American, and all of us tended to tower over our parents), looks 'em in the eye, and tells 'em in no uncertain terms: Well, you know what I meant!

And indeed they do. Just as no American can be in any doubt about where this president stands. His words blur, but his meaning is damned well clear. Some of us may disagree with him, even strongly, but we're never in doubt about where he's coming from, and where he's absolutely determined to go.

John Kerry's diction, on the other hand, is perfectly clear. It's a textbook example of New England Upper Class so well modulated it's almost neutral. Each word is distinct. His delivery is smooth, his sound sincere. It's only his meaning that's a total blur, full of reservations, equivocations, and explanations that never really explain . . . .

Was he for or against that $87 billion for the troops and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan? And by the time he's finished explaining his vote(s) on that one, does it matter?

There are a lot more serious problems than getting your words twisted. Like not supporting the troops in the field at the moment of decision, whether or not you agree with the war they're fighting at the time.

If I heard correctly, which is a big If, the president referred to the site of the second debate as Missourah, not Missouree- a distinction fraught with geographical and cultural differences in that state, differences it would take a professor of linguistics or maybe sociology to understand. I never did figure out which version I should use in my student days at the University of Missouri, and simply adopted the pronunciation of any Missourians I happened to be with at the time. And if they themselves disagreed? I just stood aside and held their coats.

But Missourah sounds natural for George W. Bush. The difference in pronunciation isn't a straight east-west or north-south thing in that state, but much spottier. Missourah sounds more western, rural, and less big-city sophisticated. More beer than wine, more Aussie than French, more Comiskey Park then Wrigley Field, more red state than blue. Or so it sounds.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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