Analyzing Obama's Speech And Cadence

NPR's Scott Simon talks with John McWhorter, linguist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, about the way in which President Obama speaks. Obama brought the cadences of black America into an inaugural address.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

It wasn't just the words and themes that drew attention in President Obama's inaugural address, but the cadence in which he spoke. Linguist and cultural observer John McWhorter joins us now from our studios in New York. John, thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. JOHN MCWHORTER (Linguist; Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute): Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And you wrote in The New Republic, you were exhilarated by President Obama's speech, in large part because of the cadence.

Prof. MCWHORTER: Well, yeah. I think that as his speech go, it wasn't his best. It was excellent, but it was not at the level of the Grant Park oration or his oration on race. But, what was fascinating to me was that here was the first time that an inaugural address is delivered partly in the cadence of Black English.

There were times when he would do the little hang at the end of sentences or when he would pronounce the word responsibility as "responsibility," which was a black intonation. And it said a lot about our nation that we would get to that point. Black English is becoming a kind of unofficial lingua franca of people under a certain age. If only in how people hear it, whether or not they actually speak it.

SIMON: Because you suggest that this has been an important part of his appeal to young voters.

Prof. MCWHORTER: Most definitely. Imagine, say, John Kerry, you know, bless him, but John Kerry trying to use the slogan, Yes We Can, in his voice. No matter how he said it, it wouldn't work. It wouldn't have worked for Hillary Clinton. It's because they're not black. There's a way of saying that that gives it a kind of spiritual flavor that reaches people.

SIMON: At the same time, does he benefit from the fact that there are other times, of course, when he absolutely speaks like a University of Chicago law professor?

Prof. MCWHORTER: Mmm hmm. And it's interesting. He's a very bidialectal person and most black people are. He is especially good at it, though, in that he can talk in a way where you would not know that he was black over the phone, and that is not true of most black Americans where there are issues of cadence and vowels and coloring where you can tell even if they're using completely standard English in terms of sentence structure. But then, especially when he talks to a black audience, he can sound quite a bit like Reverend Lowery sounded at the inauguration. And so it's a very large and flexible linguistic repertoire.

And as a linguist, what fascinates me about all these things is that these things tend to be subconscious. It's not that he's walking around thinking, now I'm going to use this dialect. It's about identity and audience. This is the way people speak. It's a fascinating thing.

SIMON: I want to ask you about a couple of offhand remarks. He goes to Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., which is cash only. I forget what the check was, but he gave a 20. And the guy behind the counter tried to give him back change and he said no, I'm straight - just means, keep the change.

We happen to have the same favorite restaurant in Chicago, and the staff there talks about how he goes in that they know what he orders to drink. Perhaps I shouldn't give away that on the air. But in any event, and they said so Mr. President, would you like the blank? And he goes, that's how I roll.

Prof. MCWHORTER: What really is happening is that America since the '60s has been a much more dressed-down place in terms of clothes, in terms of music, and in terms of language. And we could say that the first president who grew up under that new regime was Clinton, and then after him we had George Bush. Both of them used colloquialisms too, but I think that we tended to process them as Southern, you know, as maybe Hillbilly or Texan or something like that.

Barack Obama is somebody who grew up under the new regime, and he'll be using colloquialisms in public more than say Warren Harding or Abraham Lincoln would have, except we won't think of him as being Southern. He's either mainstream, in which case we will remark that the president is talking like a real person, or black, in which case we'll notice that the president is sounding very slightly street or church.

SIMON: John McWhorter, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an adjunct professor of comparative literature at Columbia. Thanks so much.

Prof. MCWHORTER: Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.