Hear Amer­ica talk­ing

You gotta ac­cen­tu­ate the pos­i­tive elim­i­nate the neg­a­tive Latch on to the af­fir­ma­tive But don’t mess with Mr. In-Be­tween . . .

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - PAUL GREEN­BERG

For­get that old say­ing about man­ners mak­ing the man. It’s our ac­cents that make us—or be­tray us. Back in the early 1960s, when I’d first come to town as the

Pine Bluff Com­mer­cial’s new edi­to­rial writer, my ra­dio-trained Amer­i­can ac­cent roused sus­pi­cions. “What part of the No’th you from?” I’d be asked. At which point it be­came oblig­a­tory to stress my South­ern roots. “Why, my grand­fa­ther and name­sake made grits,” I’d ex­plain, which was true enough. But not very.

A par­tial truth can be as de­cep­tive as a lie, and not nearly as hon­est. There was no need to go into de­tail and add that Pe­sach Gritzer had made those grits in his shtetl back in the old coun­try, fol­low­ing his horse ’round and ’round the grind­stone. And when the poor beast was off his feed, my grand­fa­ther would take his place. But enough said. Dis­cre­tion can be the bet­ter part of valor un­der some cir­cum­stances.

I am in­debted to the Na­tional Re­view’s in­valu­able Kevin Wil­liamson for the sub­ject of to­day’s col­umn. His piece (“Voice of Amer­ica”) goes into de­tail about the in­flu­ence our ac­cent has on how we’re per­ceived by oth­ers, and he in turn is in­debted to Wil­liam Labov’s scrupu­lously schol­arly ar­ti­cle, “The So­cial Strat­i­fi­ca­tion of (r) in New York City De­part­ment Stores,” a work of so­ci­olin­guis­tics that is as au­thor­i­ta­tive as John James Audubon’s guide to North Amer­i­can avians. One of the many points Mr. Wil­liamson makes is that most Amer­i­cans equate an or­di­nary South­ern ac­cent with ya­hoos no mat­ter how cul­ti­vated said South­erner may be in real life.

Whether the speaker pro­nounces his Rs in any con­text but the be­gin­ning of a word, for ex­am­ple, can be a tell­tale marker of class. No lesser artists than Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe of Guys and Dolls fame can be re­lied on as guides to Amer­i­cans’ lin­guis­tic pref­er­ences and prej­u­dices. (At Wana­maker’s and Saks and Klein’s/A les­son I’ve been taught:/ You can’t get al­ter­ations/On a dress you haven’t bought …”) Where you shopped was who you were in the eyes of oth­ers. The clerks at Klein’s, for ex­am­ple, would likely speak work­ing-class English, those at Macy’s would fa­vor vaguely mid­dle-class Amer­i­canese, and those at Saks would come clos­est to be­ing thought of as speak­ing “proper English.” I can re­mem­ber a clerk at one New York de­part­ment store turn­ing up her nose when a South­ern girl didn’t pro­duce her credit card in a New York minute. To which said South­ern girl re­sponded, “Well, Ah’m a-fixin’ to!” Which only in­creased the clerk’s dis­dain.

You couldn’t hope to find a nicer breed of Amer­i­can than the mid­west­erner in his na­tive habi­tat in and around Chicago, Ill., which is where Hil­lary Clin­ton hails from, hav­ing been born and reared in a high-tone sub­urb of that ur­ban hub. Even to­day she lacks the ver­bal agility that marked her hus­band’s shape-shift­ing rise in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Bill Clin­ton could be any­thing you wanted him to be and say any­thing you wanted to hear in just the right tones. And doubt­less still can, bless his much re­paired heart.

To quote Kevin Wil­liamson, our boy Bill “could be a phony red­neck, a phony in­tel­lec­tual, a phony Bap­tist

preacher—but Mrs. Clin­ton mostly sounded like an au­then­tic vice prin­ci­pal, but the aw­ful kind of vice prin­ci­pal who some­times swal­lows her ex­is­ten­tial rage for a minute and tries to be cool and speak to the kids in their own lan­guage.” A fel­low has to won­der if she’s got an au­then­tic bone in her body.

What­ever our oh-so-su­pe­rior types have to say about our new pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump al­ways sounds like Don­ald Trump, which leads Kevin Wil­liamson to opine: “Trump may sound like an oleagi­nous op­er­a­tor from Queens who is just about to ask, ‘What do I have to do to get you into this Buick?’ but he has the ad­van­tage of sound­ing like that all the time, which gives him a per­verse patina of au­then­tic­ity.

“One of the lessons of Trump’s 2016 vic­tory may very well end up be­ing that, the ex­cel­lence of Rick Perry not­with­stand­ing, Republicans shouldn’t nom­i­nate an­other pres­i­den­tial can­di­date from Texas—or even from the South—for a good long while. Michi­gan, South Florida, Cal­i­for­nia, Maine—any place where the lo­cals don’t sound like they might of­fer to pray for you if you send them money. That’s part of the value of Trump-speak: They can call Trump a Hitler, but they can’t call him a hay­seed, and if we have reached a point where all pres­i­den­tial pol­i­tics is Kul­turkampf, then that mat­ters and will mat­ter even more in the fu­ture. I think Alec Bald­win’s Trump im­per­son­ation is pretty funny, but I do not think it prob­a­bly sounds as funny in Ohio union halls or in the down­wardly mo­bile parts of Penn­syl­va­nia.”

Kevin Wil­liamson adds this piece of sound ad­vice for po­lit­i­cal buffs: “If you want to un­der­stand the voice of Amer­i­can pop­ulism, con­sider pay­ing some at­ten­tion to the voices of the pop­ulists.”

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