When Politicians Lose Their Accents

Apr 18, 2015
Originally published on April 18, 2015 6:25 pm
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is one of the presidential hopefuls speaking at that GOP event. And the way Walker speaks has been getting some close scrutiny lately. Check out this clip from when he was running for governor of Wisconsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

SCOTT WALKER: He's not only scared about the economy...

RATH: If you listen closely, you can hear that Midwestern accent kick in when he says economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

WALKER: Scared about the economy...

RATH: Now take a listen to a more recent speech on his presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

WALKER: You grow the economy in Washington.

RATH: Some outlets, like The New York Times, started calling out Walker, basically accusing him of losing that Wisconsin twang to appeal to a national audience as he runs for president. Is that fair, though? Are politicians really that different from the rest of us when it comes to code shifting their accents? We're turning to Georgetown University professor of linguistics Deborah Tannen to play accent police for us. Deborah, welcome.

DEBORAH TANNEN: So nice to be here.

RATH: So as you know, and probably many others, politicians changing their accents for their audience - not a new thing. Here's an example of President Obama that Jon Stewart had some fun with.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is good to be back in Puerto Rico.

(APPLAUSE)

JON STEWART: Que bueno.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Barack Obama - que bueno - Puerto Rico...

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: So obviously we have no window into the president's brain to know if he was consciously trying to do that, but in terms of one's natural speech, if there is such a thing, just how fixed do people's accents tend to be?

TANNEN: We tend to assume that we have a baseline of speech that's going to be normal in all contexts, but the truth is, we all change our ways of speaking depending on who we're talking to. And so I think it's kind of a gesture of politeness to the people you're speaking to to try to say something in their own idiom. So to say (imitating Puerto Rican accent) Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico, I think, is a pretty natural thing. It's interesting how we react when politicians do it. Maybe we're kind of predisposed to think that anything a politician does is calculated and therefore suspect. But it's only reasonable, really, to adjust the way you're speaking to your audience.

RATH: I know I sound one way with my Indian relatives, another with my English and an entirely different way with American friends. Is it something that everybody does, or is it more common with, you know, code-switcher biracial people like the president or me?

TANNEN: I think everyone does it. I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. For part of my life, I was living in Detroit, and I remember a friend of mine commenting she could always tell when I had been speaking to my mother because my New York accent had come back.

RATH: (Laughter) Now, some people pull it off better than others, arguably. Hillary Clinton got mocked for adopting a kind of Southern drawl when she quoted a Reverend James Cleveland hymn. Let's hear a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

HILLARY CLINTON: I don't feel no ways tired.

(APPLAUSE)

CLINTON: I come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don't believe he brought me this far to leave me.

RATH: OK, so it's easy to mock. And as you've said, this is something that basically everybody does in different ways. But in terms of how people understand language, which is something you study, for people on the receiving end of hearing that, does - if someone is making an effort to sound like you, like your accent, do people like that?

TANNEN: That can vary by individuals. So it can - and I think this is a bit what's happening in the way we react to politicians. It can feel like, you have no right to speak that way. You're not from the South. You're not from Puerto Rico, so you should say Puerto Rico like all the other people from the place that you come from. I would suggest that people be a little more indulgent and compassionate and just listen to themselves and realize how differently they may speak in different contexts and maybe cut some politicians a bit more slack.

RATH: Deborah Tannen is professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Deborah, thanks very much.

TANNEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOSING MY ACCENT")

NODZZZ: (Singing) Losing my accent - didn't recognize me calling. Losing my accent... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.