Sunday, June 17, 2012

The linguistic quirks of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

John McWhorter notices that Romney often says "gosh" and "gee":

“This was back, oh gosh, probably in the late ’70s,” he reminisced to a radio host about a steak house. Or, Romney surmised how his Mormonism would play out during his campaign with, “Oh, I think initially, some people would say, ‘Gosh, I don’t know much about your faith, tell me about it,’ ” as if his G-word fetish were the way just anyone talks these days. Or: Chris Wallace asked whether said faith might be a disadvantage in voter perceptions of him, and Romney exclaimed, “Gee, I hope not!” Then, Romney on carried interest—one is to “say, gosh, is this a true capital investment with a risk of loss?”
McWhorter, a linguist, gives this analysis:
Gee, gosh, and golly are all tokens of dissimulation. They are used in moments of excitement or dismay as burgherly substitutions, either for God and Jesus—words many religious people believe should not be “taken in vain”—or for words considered even less appropriate. . . . The medieval and even colonial Anglophones’ versions of profanity were to express dismay or vent pain by swearing—“making an oath”—to God or related figures considered ill-addressed in such a disrespectful way. The proper person at least muted the impact with a coy distortion, à la today’s shoot and fudge. . . . To increasing numbers of modern Americans, the G-words are unusable outside of quotation marks . . . .

The proscription against swearing “to God” has ever less force. I recall being taught it as a child in the ’70s but being quietly perplexed as to why and wondering what “in vain” meant. Since then, “ohmigod” has become an ordinary remark among even a great many churchgoers. The evasive essence of the G-words, redolent of the Beaver Cleaver 1950s Romney grew up in, has long been rejected as phony, out of line with the let-it-all-hangout essence of the culture. Indicatively, a Web search turns them up endlessly in ironic writing about Romney’s assorted evasions and half-truths during his campaign. The modern American, even if he or she has one of Romney’s Harvard degrees, often uses today’s version of profanity in the slots where Romney slides his G-words. A more, shall we say, vibrant translation of “Gee, I hope not” would be “Shit, I hope not,” and in “This was back, oh gosh, probably in the late ’70s,” “hell” would be substituted for the “oh gosh,” especially after a beer or two. Or, even in more buttoned-up moments, our versions of those sentences might include “Man, I hope not,” and especially for those under about 40, “Dude, I don’t know much about your faith.” Man and dude both reach out to the interlocutor seeking agreement. Man and dude are, at heart, solicitations—“You know what I mean, man/dude?”

This warmer, more personal way of speaking fits with a trend in American English during Romney’s lifetime, in which casual speech styles have occupied ever more of the space that used to be reserved for the more formal. Casual speech always has more room for the folksy reach-out than formal speech does: Witness the use of yo today among younger black people. “Them pants was tight, yo!” I once caught on the subway. The yo isn't the grand old call from a distance—Yo!—the guy’s friend was standing right there. This new yo appended to the ends of sentences has a particular function,reinforcing that you and your conversational partner are on the same page in terms of perspectives and attitudes.
Gee, I don't find the "G" words that odd. I would be much more taken aback if I heard a presidential candidate using "man" or "dude" that way. And surely McWhorter wouldn't seriously advise Romney to start using "yo," at any point in any sentence. By the way, although the headline and the body of the article mention the word "golly" — the squarest of the "G" words — McWhorter doesn't give any example of Romney using that word.

A commenter on TNR has a good catch:
This article misses the single most antiquated bit of English in Mitt's arsenal: the use of "why" as an interjection. As in, "Why, that's just about the best piece of pie I've ever had!" I think Ward Cleaver was literally the last person in America to use "why" this way. In 2012 it's at best naive-sounding and at worst creepy.
I agree that when Romney uses "Why . . ." at the beginning of an exclamation (instead of a question), he sounds like he's from a bygone era. We all know Romney isn't cool the way President Obama is.

However, though we'll never get tired of poking fun at the quirks of presidential candidates, I wonder whether it would be so bad to have a president whose speaking style is a bit out of touch. If that matters at all, it would mean he'd be slightly less adept at persuading people — either firing up his base, or winning people over to his point of view. If that's one of his main weaknesses, that might not be so bad. Our leaders shouldn't be too persuasive. Obama is so good at connecting — making you feel like he's talking directly to you — that it can be dangerous. After all, he has more power at his fingertips, including military and police forces, than anyone else in the world. People like Obama, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Tony Blair can talk you into anything. I sort of prefer the square, stilted politicians like Romney, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore. To me, they seem more "real," because most normal people would not be very adept at convincing a nation of hundreds of millions that "I'm basically like you; we want the same things." Most ordinary citizens who tried to run for president would probably come off as wooden and unhip. The candidate who can connect with most people is actually unlike most people.

Back to McWhorter's article: he says that Obama has "more modern" verbal tics:
This is true not only in the dusting of black inflection he often uses for rhetorical purposes, but in a certain interjectional tic: a particular penchant for you know even in weighty contexts. You know steps outside of the formal, propositional box of a statement to solicit agreement from the listener, rather like a raising of the eyebrows or hands spread outward with palms upward. A dedicated Obama mimic could go a long way in sprinkling develop thoughtful statements with ample you know-age.
Actually, "you know" isn't so modern:
In 1998, I asked a 95-year-old linguist whether he remembered people using like in the hedging way they do now when he was a child, and he said that back then, you know was used in the same way. (I have since been told this by two other nonagenarians.) The difference is that Woodrow Wilson wasn’t given to saying you know in discussing the League of Nations.
I've been struck by how many of the people who appear on Bloggingheads, for instance, will constantly pepper their speech with "you know," which seems to be the erudite version of "like." [ADDED: A similarly refined substitute for "like" is "sort of."] They've learned that "you know" makes you sound thoughtful and academic, while "like" makes you sound like a teenager. We're supposed to look down on people who constantly use "like," while admiring the nuance of those who use "you know." But as far as I can tell, neither one is more or less meaningful than the other.

21 comments:

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I like to use "gee" here in middle America. Its innocent enthusiasm is sorely needed in our culture today. And it's advisable in a place where a significant percentage of people are truly distressed, on religious rather than prudish grounds, by the use of God, Jesus, damn, and hell.

I once became suspicious of a lovely Iowa woman I was dating, because she said "golly." That was goddamn stupid of me.

Ron said...

Obama does not connect with me or persuade me at all...and not because of the politics. Living in an academic town, I've long ago learn to put up my guard against such "Teflonized" speech...gosh, it even inspires mistrust, like an older generation would gauge an appliance salesman. I sometimes feel my flesh crawl when he speaks...a generation of job seeking poseurs has mutated me!

wyo sis said...

I'm sure I show my age, but Mitt sounds like a lot of people I grew up with and a lot of people I talk to now. Maybe it's a Western thing or a Mormon thing. Lots of both where I live. Sarah Palin sounds more familiar to me as well, although it's more like Minnesota. Obama sounds to my ear, like either a person condescending to me or a frat boy. Neither make me like him any better. His mannerisms have the same vibe.

Casey said...

Interesting post, but -as Ron said- Obama doesn't connect with me. In my case it was mostly the way he takes himself so seriously.

The comment from the TNR reader is -to me- bizarre. While it's possible (if slightly silly) to consider "Why," as naive, "creepy" makes no sense at all, unless one has an allergy to normal "fly-over" human beings. ;)

I would have to say that in my life Reagan was the best speaker. Not in the formal sense as with Obama, but in that he came across as very natural, yet relaxed & effective. Sometimes simplicity carries an elegance all its own.

netmarcos said...

Interestingly, the people mentioned have the exact opposite effect on me. The first - and every - time I heard Clinton or Obama speak, my reaction was to ask, "Who is this buffoon and who does he think he's fooling with this crap?" We know the answer to that question and, unfortunately, it was and still is a whole lot of people. As with wyo sis, Mitt and Sarah sound completely normal to me.

Meade said...

"You paint your face and then you chase
To meet the gang where the action is
Stomp all night
And drink your fizz
Roll your car and say "'Gee whiz!'

On the way down, they saw a figure who appeared to be staggering up the road. It was Barry Obama. What was going on? As they drew closer, they noticed that he was laughing so hard he could barely stand up. “Where is everyone? Where’s Russell?” they asked him. “Kukes rolled his car. It’s upside down in the middle of the road!” Barry said.

Maraniss, David (2012-06-19). Barack Obama (p. 295). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Fearsome Pirate said...

Romney's biggest weakness is that he says "Gosh." Obama's biggest weakness is 8-9% unemployment with rising inflation.

Anonymous said...

I rather like the why interjection; Reminds me of one of my favorite speeches:

"Why, by God, I actually pity those poor sons-of-bitches we're going up against. By God, I do."

Gen Patton.

And here may be the connection:
http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/politics/2012/06/6007295/george-romney-almost-got-speaking-lessons-george-c-scott

Anonymous said...

Most ordinary citizens who tried to run for president would probably come off as wooden and unhip. The candidate who can connect with most people is actually unlike most people.

Peggy Noonan made a similar observation about Ronald Reagan.

R.C. said...

McWhorter's doing a good job parsing the English usage of his own set.

The problem is that he doesn't realize that his own set isn't the only set. McWhorter's view of America is parochial.

I come from a set of folks who happen not to use profanity unless seriously provoked. Also we tend to be more constrained in our conversational kinesics than some American subcultures.

As a result, when I got out into the larger world and had conversations with people who had a smaller sense of personal space, a more energetic set of conversational kinesics, and who were prone to dropping F-bombs constantly, I had to learn to slow my heart rate and not think, "Holy crap, this dude's a raging, out of control maniac and I'm worried he's about to kill me."

Seriously. Take someone coming from a mix genteel southern manners and strict Lutheranism as inculcated by the mothering of a Southern Belle and the Fathering of a cool, Apollonian, Atticus Finch kind of father, and put him in the presence of a little Italian guy from Brooklyn who swears a lot, and when the Italian guy just thinks he's having an animated conversation, the former guy is wondering whether he needs to back up or maybe settle his hand discretely near the butt of his concealed carry piece.

So Mitt Romney sounds fairly normal to me...for a certain perfectly respectable and not-uncommon subculture of our very diverse American life. If I thought that he'd been raised on a diet of Chris Rock, I'd be surprised, but he obviously wasn't.

And likewise, the Italian dude who originally made me so nervous is no problem any more. (In fact, he cuts my hair.)

One other interesting story: In college there was a guy, a friend of a friend, who for some reason got into the habit of making fun of one of my facial features within three minutes of the first time I met him and then kept doing it every five minutes in all four of our subsequent encounters.

So I was getting self-conscious in the extreme and angry in the extreme. Although I was trying to be polite, I was nearing a point where I might have to smash his face in.

So I told him, firmly and with very precise diction, to go F*** himself.

He just laughed.

But my friends, who had introduced me to him, knew me better and their eyes got very wide, and they got quite quiet, as I'd intended. THEY were getting the point, even if he wasn't.

So then, to help him get the point, I quietly mused to my self, "Y'know, I don't think I've ever said that word before."

At which point both my friends chimed in and said, yeah, they'd never heard me say that, either.

At which point the other guy finally clued in and said, "Oh...you must be really mad, then!"

It took him knowing that an F-bomb was utterly abnormal for me, for me to communicate with him.

So, folks have different dialects when it comes to interjections of this kind. As we mature we adjust to other folks' dialects.

McWhorter, a linguist, really ought to be more flexible in this regard.

Anonymous said...

Most ordinary citizens who tried to run for president would probably come off as wooden and unhip. The candidate who can connect with most people is actually unlike most people.

Peggy Noonan made a similar observation about Ronald Reagan, pointing out that if an authentic Mr. Smith really did go to Washington he wouldn't have sounded like Mr. Smith while campaigning or in front of the media - partly because he wouldn't even have been trying to sound "like himself" but rather like a Congressman.

Anonymous said...

Well, you may recall that Reagan impersonators always threw in a "well," while they cocked their head and gave an aw shucks answer. He was brilliant at connecting with his audience. He honed his delivery and style touring GE plants all over the country, of course.

It's important to practice public speaking. I'm sure Obama practices in front of a mirror.

Darcy said...

Hey - Instalanche for you. Nice.

I agree with RLC (lol @ the "goddamn stupid") and I still use "gosh" all the time. And "geez". I guess I really don't care what people think of it. It's just me.

JorgXMcKie said...

"tokens of dissimulation" Does he mean like, "as I've always said before" that Obama uses just before he tells a whopper? ;->=

And why is it that so many of "the elite" come off sounding so Pauline Kael-like when they discuss the hoi polloi?

Anonymous said...

The phoniest bit of political word substitution out there is Obama's consistent use of "folks" for "people" as in "Folks that are still hurtin'..." There's no way that's natural to him. The same thing goes for when he drops his g's, which he often does when he talks about "folks." He's just tryin' to sound folksy, and it's as phony as a three dollar bill.

Bret said...

I thought that virtually everybody varies their speech a lot depending on who they're speaking with. How I speak with business associates is radically different than how I speak with college age kids which is radically different than how I speak with children which is radically different than how I speak with someone who speaks spanish, etc. I modify my speech to best communicate with those around me.

That's what's a little odd about Romney's choice of idioms on the campaign trail. Given that he also probably modifies his speech depending on who he is speaking with, is it really the best he can do to connect with people? Or has he really been so sheltered his whole life that he hasn't developed any alternative speaking styles?

werewife said...

When exasperated, I have been known to exclaim, "Oh, for the Love of Life Orchestra!"

One detail that McWhorter didn't seem to take into account is that Mitt Romney is about fifteen years older than Barack Obama. That has to count for something, especially where the use of profanity is concerned.

Bill Dalasio said...

Thinking this matter through, it really strikes me that, if you accept McWhorter's interpretations, the "why/gee/gosh" is funamentally respectful of the listener, as it is trying to avoid offense. The "you know/man/dude" is a rhetorical gimmick to con agreement from the listener.

Fat Man said...

So, we now have to elect a President who sounds like a Gunnery Sargent with a toothache?

If that is what this election is about, we are in much deeper trouble that I had reckoned on.

Critter said...

"Flapdoodle" is a favorite of mine.

Anonymous said...

I read McWhorter's claim that Gosh and Gee are dissimulations with great mirth. The fellow simply doesn't know Mormon culture. As an I-95 corridor raised cynic who then was graduated from Brigham Young University I can report first hand that when you remove all the curse words from a language, as Mormons do when speaking, you use the other richnesses the language offers. Ask McClueless to search the script for Napolean Dynamite for the words Gosh and Gee and see just how much dissimulation those folks were doing.

There's no flipping way this guy knows what he's talking about.

Nick D'Orazio
Chandler, AZ by way of Provo, Utah.