Magazine | February 20, 2017, Issue

Voice of America

What accent would you vote for?

My colleague Reihan Salam, who either in spite of or because of his Arabic name is as deep-dipped a modern Brooklyn man as you might hope to meet, describes Donald J. Trump’s Queens-accented voice as “comforting.” Rick Brookhiser has called the presidential accent “funky.” To my West Texas ear, it sounds a great deal like the hateful and grating voice of Senator Bernie Sanders, who in theory represents Vermont but in fact represents Brooklyn, especially the nuttier parts.

Trump and Sanders not only talk alike when it comes to things such as international trade (bad!), Wall Street (bad!), and immigration (a plot against the working class, and . . . bad!), but they also simply talk alike, with similar accents and patterns of speech. If either man’s life had taken a slightly different turn, it would be easy to imagine them sitting together on the F train out to Trump’s ancestral home in Queens or the B train to Sanders’s corner of Brooklyn, or maybe at the Oyster Bar, and commiserating over the sorry state of affairs in these United States:

“Unacceptable!”

“Sad!”

“Rigged!”

“Rigged!”

No doubt the aesthetic distinction between the sound of Brooklyn and the sound of Queens is a very big deal if you are from Brooklyn or Queens, and residents of both boroughs — along with the good people of Nassau and Suffolk counties — will bristle if you refer to the whole mess as “Long Island,” which it is. Close your eyes and listen to their voices, and it is obvious that Trump and Sanders have a great deal more in common with each other than either one does with anybody picking onions in Lodi or teaching second grade in Phenix City. It is a weird testament to the narcissism of small differences that two men currently regarded as the far-flung poles of the American political spectrum grew up about twelve miles apart, were born within five years of each other, have a great many similar political ideas (populism/

nationalism/socialism in slightly different blends), and speak roughly the same horrifyingly mutilated version of Will Shakespeare’s ex-language.

They both sound like they should be selling bed linens at an S. Klein department store.

You may not remember S. Klein. I don’t — its last location closed in 1978. It once was enough of a fixture in New York life to merit a mention in Guys and Dolls (“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”) and in All in the Family (Edith Bunker shopped there) and I Love Lucy. But where it will live on in immortality is in the field of sociolinguistics, specifically in William Labov’s article “The Social Stratification of (r) in New York City Department Stores,” which is to sociolinguistics roughly what Bernard Kettlewell’s work on peppered moths in the sooty midcentury English countryside is to evolutionary biology. The short version: Labov knew that the pronunciation or non-pronunciation of “r” in certain words or phrases (in this example, “fourth floor”) was a class marker, an indicator of whether one was speaking what we used to call “proper English.” He theorized that the clerks at Klein’s, the least expensive of the three department stores in his study, would speak the most working-class or low-status version of English, the clerks at Macy’s would speak something in the middle, and the clerks at Saks would speak the most “proper” or high-status English. Not only did New York’s department stores reflect the social stratification of the city, there was even statistically significant stratification within the stores: “Floor walkers,” i.e., the staff who worked most directly with prospective customers, spoke a more proper English than did counter clerks, who in turn spoke a more proper English than did stockroom workers. The clerks working in high-priced goods such as jewelry spoke higher-class English than did those hustling towels and fitted sheets. It is interesting stuff: “It appears that a person’s own occupation is more closely correlated with his linguistic behavior — for those working actively — than any other single social characteristic.” Those Verbal Advantage ads you used to hear on talk radio (“People judge you by the words you use!”) turn out to be absolutely true, but consonants matter as much as vocabulary per se.

If you’re wondering how a billionaire New York real-estate heir sold himself as an anti-establishment populist, listen to Trump speak.

Language does funny things to our perception of other people’s social status, intelligence, and trustworthiness. There have been endless (and endlessly amusing) studies on this: Give an English high-school dropout and a Kentuckian with a Ph.D. the same script to read, and American audiences will consistently rate the Englishman as more intelligent, more highly educated, more persuasive. Indeed, lazy Hollywood producers capitalize on this sort of thing all the time: If you want to communicate intelligence and refinement, you give someone Lawrence Olivier’s accent, never mind if the character is a Nazi or Fu Manchu or a space alien. If you want to characterize someone as uncultivated, oafish, and stupid, you give him a southern accent. Watch The Secret Life of Pets, a movie as New Yorky as anything Woody Allen ever contemplated, complete with Fifth Avenue awning gags and jokes about moving to Brooklyn, and ask yourself why the skinny animal-control officer with the mustache and the mullet has an Arkansas-hillbilly accent. (The fat one has a Staten Island accent.) Are New York City’s municipal services chock-full of crackers from the Ozarks? My recollection of New York is that this is not the case.

One of the things I learned working as a theater critic in New York is that practically no one can do regional southern accents. Likewise, moviegoers winced at Nicolas Cage (“Step a-whey from the bunnayah!”) and Emma Stone’s Scarlett O’Hara rendering of the speech of Jackson, Miss. But the weirdest and least plausible accent I can recall belongs to George W. Bush, who grew up 130 miles south of me but speaks with an accent that fits Midland, Texas, about as well as John Wayne’s fit the role of Genghis Khan — or “Jen-jiss” Khan, if you’re John Kerry doing his Brahmin best. The thing about Bush’s weird accent, though: It gave people license to hate him. Bush was never a particularly Jesus-y politician, but he had the sort of accent that that kind of politician tends to have. When Neil deGrasse Tyson was circulating false claims about George W. Bush’s making odd and ugly Christian pronouncements as part of the rationale for the War on Terror, it was easy for him to stick by that lie and for others to indulge him in it: Bush sounded like that kind of guy. The media enjoyed portraying Bush as a Christian fundamentalist, as the leader of a would-be Evangelical Taliban, even though this had not the faintest basis in reality. Just as it would have been a great deal more difficult to tar Jeff Sessions of Alabama as a racist if he spoke like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, painting George W. Bush as an Elmer Gantry would have been impossible if he had had William Weld’s accent instead of his own.

To people used to the honking accents of a Trump or a Sanders, Bush comes off like a foot-washer and snake-handler. In truth, Bush is rooted in the same religious tradition as Hillary Rodham Clinton: Methodist. But he doesn’t speak with the same accent as Mrs. Clinton.

Neither does she.

Mrs. Clinton is famous for her ever-evolving accent, an example of what linguists call “code-shifting.” Code-shifting is a normal part of how we use language: If you are, for example, an African-American man from the South Bronx who works at Lazard, you probably talk a bit differently at work than you do at a family reunion. Donald Trump probably wouldn’t have used the phrase “grab ’em by the p***y” in a different setting, and southerners generally hit the “g” a lot harder when, say, making a speech before a joint session of Congress than when on a fishin’ trip. You can go on YouTube and listen to Barack Obama’s more easygoing and soft speech in his youth evolving into that clipped, precise, rigid teleprompter-ese of his presidency. But Mrs. Clinton, being a Clinton, brought an extraordinary level of phoniness to her code-shifting: “I’fe always bin a prayin’ woe-man,” “I doan’ feel noe-wayyz tahred,” etc. Given the current state of Democratic affairs, I fully expect her to run for president in 2020 doing her best Louis Farrakhan impersonation, which is itself an impersonation: Though he hails from the Bronx, he often begins his speeches with a kind of funny, sing-song affect somewhere between Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (the strategy there is obvious) before modulating into the ecclesiastical mode of Southern Thunder, which is pretty much what African-American political leaders not named Barack Obama do.

Mrs. Clinton’s strategy of saying literally anything voters wanted to hear in exactly the way they wanted to hear it said was modeled on her husband’s roughly similar strategy in 1992, but she had a problem: She’s not very good at it. Bill Clinton 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 unfathomable existential rage for a minute and tries to be cool and speak to the kids in their own language. 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 the 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.

When it comes to accents, there’s a very fine balance to be negotiated. You may not want to sound like Rick Perry of Paint Creek, Texas, but you don’t want to go too far in the other direction, either: When I mentioned to an older acquaintance in West Texas that I was going to work for National Review, he asked: “Is that the one with that ol’ boy from New York who talks like a queer?” I do not think he meant Irving Kristol.

If you want to understand the voice of American populism, consider paying some attention to the voices of the populists.

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