Sunday, 15 March 2009

How Obama appeals to Black and White

I recently came across a satisfying synthesis of my interests in politics and code-switching. What is code-switching? Put simply, code-switching is the use of more than one language (or variety), by the same person, in a conversation (or event).

The Politico (a leading USA political website) had an interesting article by Nia-Malika Henderson about how ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ hear Obama differently. It includes a story about how a phrase he used (‘nah, we straight’) was interpreted as Black English Vernacular (BEV) by black listeners and actually misheard by white listeners (as ‘No, we’re straight’) because they expected him to be speaking ‘standard English’.

Obama’s switch to BEV would be analysed by sociolinguists as a classic example of code-switching between one language variety and another, to achieve a particular effect, whether consciously or unconsciously. Many academics would be more interested in the unconscious behaviour to unravel how the brain interacts with language production. On the other hand, political scientists might of course be more interested in the conscious responses, in terms of what works, what can be controlled and therefore used for political effect.

The article goes on to cite other examples of how Obama’s speeches, in style and content, are able to appeal to black and white audiences at the same time and goes on:

John McWhorter, a linguist at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said that he believes that in Obama’s case coded messaging, which can be a matter of words, sound or grammar or all of them, is partly conscious because “he knows it arouses black audiences.”
(although note that the use here by McWhorter of ‘coded’ means ‘covert’ rather than a ‘system’ or ‘language/language variety’).

A forthcoming book, Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics by J. W. Ceaser also apparently discusses “the president's skill at code-switching” though I haven’t read this yet – it’s due to be published 28 March.

For non-sociolinguists not familiar with the concept, Black English Vernacular (BEV) is also sometimes used interchangeably with African-American English vernacular (AAEV). Writing since the early 1970s, William Labov (one of the godfathers of sociolinguistics btw) was amongst the early academics to analyse this variety and argue for the ‘systematic principles’ involved on this non-standard English variety. You can read more about what he means here and more about Labov here.

But back to now, I was excited by the Politico piece because, whilst the connection between linguistic analysis and politics is hardly new, it shows the use and significance of code-switching, not just in the interactions of the millions of multi-lingual individuals around the world, but on a international stage and in the use of persuasive language. And it kinda validates my particualr research interest, which is always nice…

No comments: