Psychology Behind the Sudden Southern Drawl

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One curious aspect of former President Bill Clinton's outburst to a Fox TV journalist last week was his suddenly pronounced southern drawl. Guest host Andrea Seabrook speaks with North Carolina State University linguist Walt Wolfram about this phenomenon, known as "style shifting."

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

This past week the Washington news media was sent atwitter after the broadcast of a certain heated exchange between a Fox News journalist and a certain Democratic former president.

(Soundbite of Fox News broadcast)

Mr. CHRIS WALLACE (Fox News): ...when he bombed the two embassies? Did they know in 2000 when he hit the Cole?

President BILL CLINTON: What did I do? I worked hard to try to kill him.

SEABROOK: Fox's Chris Wallace challenged President Clinton about how aggressively he went after Osama bin Laden in his term. The news this week chattered with analysis and debate over the facts - who did what, when and how - and also the sudden rage the question seemed to draw from the former president. But what struck sensitive ears here at WEEKEND EDITION was the curious way Clinton's anger seemed to draw out his Arkansas accent.

(Soundbite of Fox News broadcast)

Mr. WALLACE: Right.

President CLINTON: But at least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried.

SEABROOK: Turns out this is not uncommon. Walt Wolfram is a linguist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Mr. Wolfram, you say this is a psycholinguistic phenomenon called style shifting. What is exactly is that?

Professor WALT WOLFRAM (North Carolina State University): Well, everyone has certain registers or styles. They don't speak to everyone the same way and they alter their speech in different situations. And so what we have there is the former president speaking in one way when he becomes agitated and angry, and another way when simply giving a presentation to a more detached body of people.

You know, and the question is, why would he manipulate that style to become Southern? Was he just not thinking about it and therefore reverting to what is perhaps natural from his childhood, which all of us to do to some extent? Or was he simply trying to present himself as honest, sincere, and in touch with his background and feelings?

SEABROOK: And you're saying that it happens - when it happens subconsciously, it happens, for instance, in this case, when somebody is really angry, when they're not paying...

Prof. WOLFRAM: Well, when we're not monitoring how we're speaking. And the president, of course, is always monitoring what he might be saying. But what happens in this case when we don't monitor, then more of who we are comes out.

SEABROOK: So I see. You can either do this consciously to manipulate a situation or it could be completely subconscious.

Prof. WOLFRAM: That's right. I remember former President Reagan using double negatives to indicate the resolve of the United States. You know, so nobody is going to do nothing to us. That sort of expression would be a conscious manipulation. He used them to indicate we're going to be tough and we're going to have resolve about this particular issue.

SEABROOK: But to some extent, everyone does this.

Prof. WOLFRAM: Oh, everyone does that. It's just that presidents have to be a little more guarded than the rest of us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Walt Wolfram is a linguist from North Carolina State University. Thank you so much for clearing this up for us.

Prof. WOLFRAM: Thank you.

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