Has anyone ever told you that you had an accent, even though you insisted that you didn’t? There’s a reason they’re picking up on it, even if neither of you can figure out why. Perhaps you’re a New Englander who doesn’t drop the “r” at the end of “car,” but someone from the Deep South guesses you’re from Boston because you pronounce “bought” the same as “bot.” Meanwhile, a New Yorker might think it’s weird that the Southerner doesn’t differentiate between “bought” and “bot” even more.
People often think of accents and dialects as existing in a bubble surrounding a certain region, but that is inaccurate. Isogloss maps like the one above reinforce this idea, but be warned: dialects do not just begin and end on a line. People move now more than ever taking their accents with them or picking up a new one, and communities within the same region or even the same city often do not sound similar based on any number of factors: age, neighborhood, race, sexuality, and even the TV shows and music they liked growing up.
Below are examples of dialect heatmaps, which show a more accurate representation of how dialects function. Note which region Texas falls with on each question, continuing the mystery of whether or not to consider it part of the South, and which accent marker Wisconsin shares with Louisiana.
Today, the majority of Americans speak Standard American English (SAE) – often associated with newscasters – but subtle accent features like the bot/bought merger are nearly impossible for the average speaker to even identify, let alone change.
Accents on the presidential campaign trail
Linguists use the resources above to explain differences in speech that aren’t necessarily determined by region, like figuring out what it means when someone says a person “sounds gay,” “sounds black,” or “sounds like a bro.” It can be difficult to identify what exact features led them to that decision, either because it may be hard to pinpoint the precise linguistic feature involved, or because it can simply be awkward to describe what you think someone of a certain color, sexuality, or cultural identity should sound like. This gets further complicated in certain code-switching situations, as with former Presidents Clinton and Obama, both of whom were famously good at changing their speech patterns to mirror their audience, though this was not always considered a desirable trait.
“Cultural fluency was welcome to African-American voters.”
Obama had the misfortune of being president as smartphones and YouTube changed the social and political landscape so that people who had never noticed code-switching before were able to compare every speech and comment Obama had ever made on camera and pick up on the differences in speech. Few people under the age of 30 probably realize that Clinton was as good as, if not better than Obama at code-switching. Clinton was able to use his native Arkansas accent to court the black vote, causing people to delight in Toni Morrison’s naming him “America’s first black president.”
“Because of his Southern heritage, [Clinton] appeared to be very, very comfortable in African-American communities,” says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. That ease, Gillespie said, ranges from his famous sax-playing appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show to his ease on the campaign trail in interacting with black voters — it “sort of hinted at a certain type of cultural fluency that was welcome to African-American voters,” she added.
For those of you too young to remember, here, go ahead and enjoy the most 1992 thing you’ll ever see before I ruin it:
The few times anyone mentioned Clinton’s tendency to play up one dialect or the other, it was always in a tongue-in-cheek, almost affectionate way; it was funny and endearing that he spoke like that:
“I always enjoyed watching Bill Clinton dial up his southern-fried accent as needed for a barbecue or down for a speech to the United Nations. But I cringed just as much watching Hillary Clinton try to do the same.”
“Is it because he wants to talk white?”
Meanwhile, in Illinois, Obama was putting a lot of effort into developing the identity of a young black man working to bring change to black communities in low-income Chicago. Clinton’s public speaking tactic worked well for Obama with many demographics, but the critics he did have were vocal. Some of them pointed to his having been born in Hawaii and raised by his white mother as evidence that he was simply putting on a show when he “talked black.” This, while overly simplified, at least acknowledges that someone’s “real” accent is determined by their families and peers, not assigned by race.
However, most critics claimed that the accent he learned as a young child was, in fact, the false one. In a 2008 interview, Ralph Nader claims there is only one thing setting Barack Obama apart from the other Democratic candidates: “He’s half African-American.” He then details the struggles plaguing the black community, such as predatory loans, which Obama had allegedly ignored. He goes on to hypothesize the reason behind such avoidance by asking, “Is it because he wants to talk white?”
It is unclear why Ralph Nader, along with his friend and supporter Jesse Jackson, thought a boy raised in Hawaii by his white mother should speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The culprit seems to be the age-old misconception that ethnicities inherently speak in their respective accents, regardless of environmental factors. The underlying reasoning here seems to be the widely discredited theory that accents are genetic, but then one has to wonder how they would explain the reason a child of Italian immigrants sounds like her friends in Ohio.
Obama was likely correct in commenting later, “Ralph Nader’s just trying to get attention,” but the argument itself is only tenable because Nader had no linguistic background and rightly assumed that the media were similarly uninformed. Armed with an understanding of how and why accents are learned, his interviewer might have asked, “Where exactly do you think accents come from?”
But he did not, and so this easily disprovable that African-Americans must speak AAVE – and if they don’t, they are trying to fool you – has entered the collective conscious with little opposition. Of course, there are many non-linguists who know from their own experience that this is false and could easily dismantle Ralph Nader’s argument, but we have already seen how he would respond.
“I talked to a lot of African-Americans.”
Bill Clinton, meanwhile, does not have critics vocalizing his abandonment of northerners when he fell into his southern accent, and only recently has his inconsistent support for the black community come under close scrutiny on a national level. His approval ratings among black voters barely dipped after his controversial Crime Bill of 1994. Salon published a piece, “Why blacks love Bill Clinton,” one month after he had left office. Journalists were still asking him for opinions on race relations in America four years after he was out of office. A year after Katrina hit and Kanye said the recently re-elected President Bush didn’t care about black people, the New Yorker would publish a neverending article detailing Clinton’s work ethic and his struggle with getting caught in a scandal. At a speech he made during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, he again defended the effect of 1994’s bill on the African-American community:
Understanding linguistic profiling
Discrimination in the workplace
William Labov is the godfather of studying accents and dialects, specifically how they affect individuals and society as a whole. Labov created a groundbreaking study colloquially known as “the department store study” where he chose three popular department stores in Manhattan and researched which items would be on the fourth floor in each of them. He then went into each store and asked various employees where these items were, prompting them to respond with, “On the fourth floor.”
Labov hypothesized that the prestigious, high-paying Saks and (to a lesser extent) Macy’s would use more Rs in their responses, while the cheaper and low-wage S. Klein would drop most of their Rs. The chart above shows the accuracy of his hypothesis: out of 68 Saks employees, only 6 never pronounced the R, while it was dropped entirely by 50 of 71 S. Klein employees, with only 4 pronouncing it without additional prompting.
Discrimination in housing
The study shown below is one John Baugh has performed many times. John Baugh was Labov’s protege and, in turn, the godfather of linguistic profiling and study of AAVE. He coined the term linguistic profiling in order to describe precisely what he, and Labov before him, were shedding light on. He based it off of Labov’s department store methodology and applied it to a new kind of study where three or more men (all voiced by Baugh) called a realtor and tried to get an appointment to look at open apartments.
Each man would have a distinct accent associated with black, middle-to-upper class white, and Latinx speakers: respectively, African American Vernacular English, Standard American English, and a Hispanic-American accent often referred to as “Chicano.” Baugh is lauded by his colleagues not only for his skill in code-switching but for shedding a linguist’s light on a social issue that millions of African and Hispanic Americans had been trying to get someone to champion for decades.
So was Obama faking it or not?
Since we’ve already discussed the fact that Obama was raised learning Standard American English, the question is then: did Obama intentionally play up his South Side Chicago variation of AAVE? It’s likely he was at least aware of picking it up since he wasn’t raised in Chicago or around many black Americans, for one thing. He’s also spoken and written extensively about his early years in Chicago when he was trying to earn the trust of low-income black families on the South Side, so it makes sense that he would want to communicate in a way that made them comfortable and painted him as trustworthy.
To learn an accent fluently enough for the locals not to call you on it leads one to believe that he either fell into the Chicago AAVE accent quite easily or he worked incredibly hard to copy it, but rarely do non-linguists acknowledge a third, far more likely possibility: both scenarios were happening simultaneously. Once he earned the trust of the community and won his office, he remained largely popular with the very same people he had supposedly tricked into voting for him.
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People in the ’90s had a good chuckle when Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton “America’s first black president.” Everyone has always referenced it in a way that made me think it was a compliment, a nod towards what made him so popular with black voters – people have even asked Obama about it in interviews. Yet there are only rare references to Morrison explaining what she’d really meant. She clarified it in an interview with Time:
People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp.