When Hil­lary speaks, a lady emerges

The Washington Times Weekly - - National -

No­body abuses the Queen’s English like the av­er­age Amer­i­can, who usu­ally speaks in sen­tence frag­ments, hap­pily man­gles syn­tax and is cheer­fully obliv­i­ous to the rules of gram­mar. And he can’t speel so good, ei­ther.

Slovenly speech shouldn’t hurt some­one who only wants to get elected pres­i­dent of the United States. But two stu­dents of the way pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates speak, Camelia Suleiman of Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity and Daniel C. O’Con­nell of Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, beg to dif­fer, or at least in­struct. The news for Hil­lary Clin­ton is not good.

The pro­fes­sors dis­cov­ered that sex — or what the squea­mish in­sist on call­ing “gen­der” — sep­a­rates the speech of the rowdy and in­fa­mous. When they ex­am­ined sev­eral hours of ra­dio and television in­ter­views of Bill and Hil­lary, they dis­cov­ered that Bill in­evitably “talks like a man” and Hil­lary is care­ful, per­haps sub­con­sciously, to sound “la­dy­like.” Th­ese find­ings are re­ported in the latest is­sue of the Jour­nal of Psy­cholin­guis­tic Re­search.

Even the in­ter­view­ers of the power cou­ple, no mat­ter how hard they tried to be prop­erly and po­lit­i­cally cor­rect, treated the Clin­tons dif­fer­ently. “Even though Hil­lary Clin­ton is a politi­cian her- self,” the re­searchers found, “she still fol­lows to some ex­tent the his­toric des­ig­na­tion of women’s lan­guage as the lan­guage of the non-pow­er­ful.”

For ex­am­ple, Hil­lary is nearly three times more likely to sprin­kle her con­ver­sa­tion with the lin­guis­tic cringe “you know” than Bill is, laps­ing into the school­girl hedge that di­min­ishes the power of lan­guage. Women, the pro­fes­sors say, are more likely to “hedge” than men.

Hil­lary em­ploys the word “so” as a means of “in­ten­si­fy­ing” what she is try­ing to say. The use of in­ten­si­fiers, say the re­searchers, is more com­mon to women than men and this is what makes “fe­male lan­guage” pow­er­less.

An­tic­i­pat­ing a vol­ley of fem­i­nist com­plaints, the pro­fes­sors con­cede they may not know what they’re talk­ing about. “We are com­par­ing only two in­di­vid­u­als [. . .] but Bill and Hil­lary’s lan­guage does re­flect the his­toric power re­la­tions be­tween men and women.” The re­searchers stud­ied tapes of in­ter­views con­ducted over the past four years. “This is Hil­lary Clin­ton’s per­sonal style, as com­pared to Bill Clin­ton’s,” Prof. Suleiman tells the Web site LiveS­cience.

It’s not fair to sin­gle out Hil­lary as a unique abuser of the lan­guage. She’s prob­a­bly bet­ter at civ­i­liz­ing her tongue than most. We’re just not as re­spect­ful of the lan­guage as our English cousins, prob­a­bly be­cause it’s their lan­guage. No­body is as care­ful with his neigh­bor’s wheel­bar­row or gar­den rake as he is with his own.

Mag­gie Thatcher needed nei­ther hedge nor in­ten­si­fier to make a point, as any fan of Ques­tion Time, when the prime min­is­ter is rou­tinely put on the grid­dle by Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment, could tell you. Th­ese ses­sions are reg­u­larly broad­cast by C-SPAN, and you don’t have to be con­ver­sant with the ins and outs of Bri­tish pol­i­tics to marvel at how lan­guage can be used as grenade or scim­i­tar, balm or strin­gent.

Hil­lary, more­over, ad­dresses in­ter­view­ers by their first in­stead of last names as if she were au­di­tion­ing for a job as a tele­phone so­lic­i­tor for the po- lice­man’s ball. The re­searchers spec­u­late that she might have been try­ing to es­tab­lish chum­mi­ness, or even sym­pa­thy with faux ca­ma­raderie, tak­ing ques­tions about Bill’s rut­ting, her hair, her clothes, her daugh­ter, her grow­ing up as a New York Yan­kee fan in Illi­nois, her fak­ing a down-home Arkansas ac­cent in the black churches of Har­lem. Bill rarely does that, per­haps be­cause so far no in­ter­viewer has ex­tended the nox­ious habit of first-nam­ing peo­ple he doesn’t re­ally know to a for­mer pres­i­dent.

The re­searchers even mea­sured whether the na­tion’s most fa­mous power cou­ple pro­nounces all their syl­la­bles, as an ed­u­cated English­man would. The for­mer pres­i­dent speaks 82 per­cent of his syl­la­bles, Hil­lary 77 per­cent of hers, in­clud­ing hedges and in­ten­si­fiers.

Women in pol­i­tics, the re­searchers say, while in­fus­ing their speech with a fem­i­nine style, can trans­form lin­guis­tic li­a­bil­i­ties into a pow­er­ful lan­guage of their own. “In other words, we de­fine so­cial re­la­tions through lan­guage, the way we speak.” Any hus­band try­ing to slip into bed­room un­seen af­ter a night on the town could tell you that much. You could ask Bill Clin­ton.

Wesley Pruden is ed­i­tor in chief of The Times.

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