We spoke with Kirk Hazen, professor of linguistics in the Department of English and director of the West Virginia Dialect Project, to gain some insight on southern language features and the presidency. Professor Hazen is the author of An Introduction to Language (2015).
How did Jimmy Carter open the presidency to other southern language speakers such as Bill Clinton?
Jimmy Carter made it possible for a southerner to hold a high political office outside of local government. Before that point, it was sort of like John F. Kennedy’s initial troubles. During his campaign, people were worried that he was Catholic, but people were also worried about how he sounded this New Englander status and whether it would be respectable to the rest of the world. Now, it’s somewhat iconic. Jimmy Carter made it so that southerners who would normally be seen so negatively for their dialect features could actually be seen in a positive light.
What sort of stereotypes did southern language speakers have to overcome? What was their perceived advantage?
There are negative views of southerners’ ability to do things to do intellectual things, to do technical and detailed things, to fly a plane and do brain surgery. The upside is that southern dialects are considered more personable, friendlier, more in-touch. There is a field of study called perceptual dialectology where we ask, “how do these people sound to you?” Are they friendlier, more competent, and all of the questions that would feed into those two main categories. Southern dialects usually rank lower in terms of perceived competence, but they rank highest in terms of perceived friendliness, warmth, and sincerity. Because of those qualities, you can use southern features to come across as truly earnest. In the United States, there is a third side to regional dialects. To be standard, you are not required to reach a certain set of vowels, a certain dialect. Standard simply requires you to not have any vernacular features. As long as you don’t have anything that sticks out as clearly stigmatized, everything else is fine. In England, there is actually a target upper-middle class dialect called “RP,” Received Pronunciation. We don’t have anything like it in the United States. Here, you just have to avoid heavily stigmatized bits of language in order to be considered standard.
Was President Bill Clinton able to achieve an acceptable standard with his southern language features?
Bill Clinton actually had a broad repertoire, so he could go towards more formal ends and then sound a great deal friendlier in smaller audiences, or contexts where he wanted to sound more approachable. He could definitely control range. He was the governor of Arkansas for many years, so he had plenty of practice before he became president. Even well before the presidency, he traveled widely. For example, he was a Rhodes scholar in England. There is a lot about him that doesn’t sound all that southern, but there are still features there. He can be pegged as sounding more southern than George W. Bush, whose campaign would always promote his southern roots. Since he spent some early years in Texas they wanted to latch on to that because that seems much more authentic than New England and Yale.
Before Carter, was there anybody else that tried to implement this thought of southern dialect in order to achieve what Carter was able to?
Directly before Carter in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the trouble was that southern politicians who were on the national stage were people like Strom Thurmond, who tried to break off the Democrats into the Dixiecrats and wanted to maintain segregation. So, the image of southern dialects had a lot to do with that. It was hard for people to hear some dialects and not think racism. So, one of the negative sides, other than the supposed lack of competence, is if people hear southern dialects, they think that everyone is a racist. The civil rights angst from southern politicians did not help this image at all, because it became clear that they wanted to maintain segregation no matter what. The politicians in the south were overtly campaigning and getting elected on the basis of maintaining segregation in schools, which looks horrendous from this century.
Are there any barriers in today’s presidency that have been removed?
There is a book about President Obama’s language called “Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the US” by Alim and Smitherman. It deals with his use of any bit of language that could possibly be seen as Black English and people’s perceptions of his language. He has walked a very weird and fine line between wanting to sound human and people saying he is such a good speaker. There were plenty of news reporters who would say things like, “Oh he is very articulate,” which can only be said if you have this underlying assumption that he wasn’t going to be able to say words out loud or be understood in the first place, which is covert racism.
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