Racist sociolinguistics from El Rushbo?

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Politicians' slips of the tongue hit the news from time to time, with observers often trying to read more into them than is really there.  But Hendrik Hertzberg ("Decoding Limbaugh", The New Yorker, 2/23/2010) argues that Rush Limbaugh has recently reached a new low in mean-spirited misinterpretation. [Update: more here.]

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  1. George said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    Ann Althouse disagrees with Hertzberg's analysis, for what it's worth.

    [(myl) Rush Limbaugh asserts that Obama pronounced "ask" as "aks", in order to "reach out" to "the Reverend Jackson" in support of a policy of providing education funding to the states, which Limbaugh describes (bizarrely) as having something to do with "civil rights" and "reparations". Herzberg argues that his pronunciation is actually [aksk], and is clearly a speech error caused by the influence of the word access earlier in the sentence — and this analysis seems to me to be correct.

    Althouse doesn't discuss the analysis of "ask" — she just argues that because Limbaugh was (mis-?) quoting Harry Reid about Obama's speech patterns in general, he should get a pass in this case.

    With respect to her argument — even without discussing whether Limbaugh was citing Reid appropriately, which I would argue he was not — a key factual question is whether there's any believable evidence that Obama was "turn[ing] on that black dialect when he wants to" in the passage under discussion. There's certainly no evidence of that whatsoever in the brief audio clip that Limbaugh played.

    If that's true, then Althouse's argument seems to me to be irrelevant, since for Limbaugh to bring the issue up was a gratuitous introduction of race into a context where there's no reason (other than pandering to racists) to raise it. You might be able to provide some feeble justification for Limbaugh (and Althouse) by finding evidence of relevant variation elsewhere in the cited speech — I don't have time to look into the rest of it right now, but I'll report back when I've done so. If anyone wants to place a bet, I'll offer you attractive odds that Limbaugh (and Althouse) are going to come up short.]

  2. Ken Grabach said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    I simply ask, and ask simply, what is one to make of Rush behaving as Rush does? He asks who the President is trying to reach, and the same could be asked of El Rushbo.
    In my opinion, a typically thorough exegesis by the New Yorker of someone behaving as he is wont to do.
    I think it is disgusting, but he, quite frankly, doesn't care what any liberal, myself included, thinks about anything. Point.

  3. Pau Amma said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    I'm curious: since "ax"/"axe" is the common form in the Canterbury Tales (I haven't seen any example of "ask", but I might have skipped over it without noticing), when did the switch to "ask" happen, and is that US dialectal form a reversal of that change, a subsistence of the older form (which would then have coexisted continuously with the newer form until now), or something entirely unrelated (since axe was presumably bisyllabic in ME, as many words ending in -e, according to the language notes in my edition of the CT)?

  4. Mark P said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    I don't think there is any reasonable interpretation of Limbaugh's speech as anything but race baiting. If there is anything racist in Reid's statement, it is of the condescending sort. The racism in Limbaugh's statements are more in the nature of hatred. He is appealing to the worst in his listeners, and I think they will instantly understand what he means.

  5. AJD said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    Pau Amma: I'm pretty sure "ask" and "aks" have coexisted for this word since fairly early Old English, although "ask" is older and has cognates in other Germanic languages.

    Interestingly, ordinarily pre–Old English sc produces sh in Modern English, so OE æsc- should have become ash (and did, in some dialects). I wonder if it was the existence of aks alongside it that allowed ask to retain its /sk/ cluster instead of becoming /∫/.

  6. Nathan Myers said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    More generally, in what he calls "black dialect" (and southern, or somewhere more specific?), isn't there a tendency to replace word-final "k" with "t"? Is there a name for that? It must have been studied, somewhere. Can we read the reversal "aks" an attempt to avoid the replacement? I know there are groups that say "ast" instead.

  7. mitchell said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    as much as i hate rush limbaugh, the analysis almost makes sense. it's certainly nothing new for politicians to employ vernacular speech to reach out to a certain audience (especially in a diglossic situation). arabic politicians will use parts of the colloquial dialects in a speech otherwise conducted in fusha.

    however, this is only one word, and as ann althouse pointed out, there is another plausible explanation. so rush is still an idiot.

  8. ellis said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

    Pau Amma – The OED entry is quite helpful, here

    Common Teut.: OE. áscian was cogn. w. OFris. âskia, OS. êscôn, êscan, OHG. eiscôn, MHG. eischen, Ger. heischen, OTeut. *aiskôjan: cf. Skr. ish to seek, ichchhā wish. The original long á gave regularly the ME. (Kentish) ōxi; but elsewhere was shortened before the two consonants, giving ME. a, and, in some dialects, e. The result of these vowel changes, and of the OE. metathesis asc-, acs-, was that ME. had the types ōx, ax, ex, ask, esk, ash, esh, ass, ess. The true representative of the orig. áscian was the s.w. and w.midl. ash, esh, also written esse (cf. æsce ash, wæsc(e)an wash), now quite lost. Acsian, axian, survived in ax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and south. dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. Already in 15th c. the latter was reduced dialectally to asse, pa. tense ast, still current dialectally.

    Ax is still current in some British dialects, although, like in the US, it is commonly disparaged as an error, and lots of people who use ax in informal speech will switch to ask in more formal settings.

  9. fev said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    "Can we read the reversal "aks" an attempt to avoid the replacement? I know there are groups that say "ast" instead."

    I've always heard "ast" as a past form, which seems like it would be a different kind of cluster reduction than "aks." Word-final "d" (I think) is the one that usually devoices to "t" (handed/handet). But I'm about to get out of my depth here. I look forward to a proper gutting of Limbaugh from the professionals.

    [(myl) [&ae;st] for "asked" is cluster simplification, where the [k] is elided, as might well happen in rapid casual speech in words like "tasked" or "whisked". (And if the [k] is unreleased, it's going to be hard to tell from the sound whether it's there or not, anyhow.) [&ae;ks] for "ask", or [&ae;kst] for "asked", involves changing the order of the [s] and [k] relative to the now-standard version. This metathesis (as explained in the OED entry cited above) happened a long time ago, in Old English days, and the metathesized form was apparently the literary standard through about 1600. So as often, the now non-standard form is the older one, and the current standard form is the innovation.]

  10. Kylopod said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    I concluded that Limbaugh was a racist a while ago, and he has gotten worse over time, with Obama's rise to the presidency seeming to bring the worst out of him. (For a guide to what Limbaugh has actually said and what has been falsely attributed to him, see here.) But this "aks" episode isn't the smoking gun. It isn't anywhere near the level of, say, his remark that Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama was "all about race," or his recent remarks about the Haiti disaster.

    Still, there's a consistent theme at work. Limbaugh is obsessed with Obama's race, and although he acts like he's merely exposing the racial mindset of others, he manages to inject race into situations where it has been evident to nobody but himself. He is the pot calling the kettle black. As Conor Friedersdorf has demonstrated, Limbaugh in fact race-baits more prolifically than just about any other commentator, right or left, today.

  11. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

    The linguistic angle is here, no doubt, but the more interesting hook is political, thus the controversy. There is no need for any liberal or any sane person to consider Limbaugh to be a scientist who, upon discovering a piece of evidence, has taken to wondering what conclusion to draw. He has his conclusion and is gathering evidence as he goes–a classic logical fallacy in operation. Why feel threatened by him? Grant Limbaugh his most sinister suspicions and still he has nothing. Hertzberg did himself a disservice by getting into the gutter with him and name-calling.

  12. John Cowan said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    I am and always have been an ast-speaker, though never an ax-speaker.

  13. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    It's a waste of neurons to analyze Limbaugh & that ilk as rational entities. As I got a haircut yesterday I watched Glen Beck work himself into a lather of indignation presenting the plot of Dr. Strangelove as an actual historical event to be taken as an example of the generalized evil of scientists, manifested today as the global warming hoax.

    You should see the Obama poster my barber has in his shop. Anyone who doubts that racism is a powerful driver in today's conservative politics just isn't paying attention.

    Selbst die Götter ,,,

    [(myl) I agree that Rush Limbaugh is a sort of high-impact radio troll, whose positions seem mainly to be chosen in cynical pursuit of personal advantage, rather than through logic or even political principle. But many of his fans are rational and principled beings, or at least as close an approximation as humans generally manage to be. And so I think it's worth engaging his arguments, even if it plays into his hands by puffing up his apparent importance a little more.]

  14. MHN said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 1:33 am

    I've been curious about another group's usage of "aks" for "ask." I have heard several Taiwanese friends (whose native language is Mandarin, rather than Hoklo/Taiwanese) use "aks" when they are speaking English and mean to say "ask." One friend has specifically asked me to correct her English and when I've tried to on this point, she's not able to change her pronunciation and my impression is that she isn't actually hearing the difference between the two. Has anyone else noticed this in native speakers of Mandarin (when they are speaking in English)? What do you attribute it to?

  15. Panu said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 5:52 am

    I have always thought "ax" for "ask" is Hiberno-English. As you probably know, I am very much into the Irish language, and consequently I have seen lots of written representations of colloquial English from Ireland.

    I tend to see it as a hypercorrection, because Irish tends to substitute [sk] for [ks]. For instance, box is usually bosca in Irish.

  16. Jay Lake said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 9:14 am

    This from a man whose political standard bearers proudly mispronounce "nuclear' as evidence of their genuine American-ness? I don't think so.

  17. ellis said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    So as often, the now non-standard form is the older one, and the current standard form is the innovation

    Isn't it more that both forms have been around for as long as we can usefully talk about the distinction, and regional/sociolect variation has preserved both to the present, while literary/standard English has shifted from one to the other.

  18. Anon said,

    November 29, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    Ironic to me that there was so little comment about this regarding President Bush (the younger), a child of Northern parents whose rural Texas accent was exaggerated to the point of falsity, in tandem with an appearance of ignorance that was perhaps only partially affected. The imposture was certainly most galling to me as a native, the more so because it largely appeared to have escaped notice.

  19. Letters “r” lies, or why English spelling is horrible | said,

    October 8, 2012 @ 11:51 pm

    [...] "Aks" instead of "ask", for example. (For what it's worth, "aks" is the original pronunciation.) And you would be writing by hand. On very expensive [...]

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