Yuge language considerations in the primaries

by Mellissa Martinez


An accent can reveal much about a person—it provides evidence of where we grew up, what social class we identify with and even where our parents come from. Some people are wary of the attached stigma or misperception of their accent and will attempt to change it to avoid being stereotyped. This is, not surprisingly, a common practice with politicians who are attempting to appeal to a large and diverse crowd.

Hillary Clinton is a master of the accent shift. In fact, she has so successfully changed her speaking styles over the years that Bloomberg produced a video, titled “The Ever Changing Accents of Hillary Clinton.” The short program pokes fun at Ms. Clinton’s history of altering inflections.

There is a young Clinton with a sassy Southern drawl (sow-sai-ity) and a more mature, 1990s Clinton, with a Midwestern twang (nyeah-tural) followed by a 2000 Clinton cutting the –g’s off the ends of gerunds (livin’). The video doesn’t accuse?Ms. Clinton of pandering to her audience. Rather, it points out that although she came from the South, her accent seems to shift as she moves to other regions and broadens her audience.

Bernie Sanders grew up in a Brooklyn in the 1940s and 1950s. His strong accent is not only a product of the place he grew up; it is also distinctly influenced by the culture in which he was raised—Brooklyn’s Jewish community, in which one common feature is a tendency to over-pronounce t’s at the end of words. Whereas many people mute t’s so that they sound like d’s, Bernie’s t’s are loud and clear in words like rejecT, in facT, and importanT.

A recent video from Vox.com, titled “Bernie Sanders’ Accent Explained,” breaks down the candidate’s speech pattern with such clarity and humor that I have found myself watching it over and over—as a source for this article (and for a good chuckle). The clip of comedian Larry David impersonating Sanders left me in stitches. It is reported that even Bernie laughed out loud at David’s SNL impersonation where he famously ranted, “I don’T have a supah PAC. I don’T even have a backpack!”

The production also points out the similarities and differences between Donald Trump’s New York accent and Bernie’s. They both share the common regional trait of dropping r’s before consonants or at the end of words. Words like millionaihe, billionaihe and cohprite America immediately bring to mind a Sandah’s speech, while Trump drops his r’s in cases like smaht, poohly and fouhth. The custom of r-dropping started in the elite social class of New York, who were attempting to emulate British speech patterns.

Up until the mid-1900s, it was considered distinguished to drop r’s in New York. Ironically, the opposite phenomenon is now occurring—New Yorkers who identify with upper-social classes have started to maintain their r’s.

In a study out of the University of Texas, linguists combed through audio files of Sanders and Trump at home and on the road and found that, not surprisingly, Trump is likely to keep his r’s when he is speaking outside of New York. Like Hillary, Trump changes his accent for his audience. Or, as the study determined, Trump is “stylistically much more adaptive than Sanders.” Sanders consistently retains his accent even at the risk of appearing to be an outsider.

Another distinct similarity between the New York natives Sanders and Trump is what I refer to as the YUE factor. We have all heard both candidates talk about yuman beings, yumiliating defeats and yuge problems! For two men who disagree on so many platforms, they both clearly agree to drop h’s before most u’s.

New York vowel raising, sometimes called the ‘thought vowel,’ refers to the process of changing the low vowel sound in ‘thought’ (pronounced like cot) to a higher vowel sound (like cawt).

With both Trump and Sanders, it can be heard in words like Law enfawcement, lawts of and even New Yawk. Again, the Texas study shows that while Bernie raises his vowels consistently, Trump tends to raise them at home and lower them on the road. Even Hillary has gotten into the mix. As a resident and former senator, she too has become a New York vowel raiser—she was recently recorded in New York talkin about lawng term care.

If this strange election year begins to baffle you as it has me, you might reconsider how you perceive the messages of the candidates. Some are shifty, while others are not. Perhaps it is not what the candidates are saying, but HOW they are saying it that is the most telling.


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