[This is to follow up, as promised, on yesterday's brief note, "Racist sociolinguistics from El Rushbo?"] On Feb. 22, President Obama met with a group of state governors at the White House, as described in Peter Baker and Sam Dillon, "Obama Pitches Education Proposal to Governors", NYT 2/22/2010. He opening the discussion with an 11-minute speech. Video of the whole thing is here. About nine minutes into the presentation, he says:
First, as a condition of receiving access to Title 1 funds, we will ask all states to put in place a plan to adopt and certify standards that are college and career ready in reading and math.
He pronounces the word ask as [æksk]. On Rush Limbaugh's radio program later in the same day, Limbaugh played the cited sentence, and makes a big deal of this pronunciation. Among other things, he says:
((See-)) this is- this is what- this is what Harry Reid was talking about — Obama can turn on that black dialect uh when he wants to and turn it off.
Who's he trying to reach out here to, the Reverend Jackson?
(An extended audio clip of Limbaugh's remarks is here.)
Henrik Herzberg suggests ("Decoding Limbaugh", The New Yorker, 2/23/2010) that Obama's [æksk] is actually not a matter of slipping into "black dialect" (which might use the older pronunciation [æks] for ask), but just a speech error, whereby an extra [k] slipped into the standard pronunciation, promoted by the word access earlier in the sentence.
Herzberg's analysis seems plausible to me. It explains the otherwise mysterious [ksk] sequence, but more important, it makes sense of the fact that neither in this passage, nor in the rest of the address, are there any other signs of what Limbaugh called "black dialect", whether in pronunciation or morphosyntax or vocabulary choice. I don't see any way to guess the color of Obama's skin by listening to that presentation. If he decided to "turn on that black dialect", he did it for less than 100 milliseconds in an 11-minute speech.
As a general marker of informality in Obama's presentation, we could look at "g-dropping". As a point of reference, let's take g-dropping rates in one of the presidential debates of October 2008, which I discussed in "Empathetic -in'", 10/18/2008:
In the first 40 minutes of the first presidential debate (transcript, mp3), Senator Obama used 84 gerund-participles, and dropped 8 g's. A g-dropping rate of about 10% is not at all out of line for someone in his position — in comparison, in the same period of the same debate, Senator McCain dropped 10 g's in 66 opportunities. (In both cases, I've left out all instances of the sequence "going to", which is especially interesting but also behaves in a special way.)
In the cited remarks to the assembled governors on Feb. 22, President Obama used 68 gerund-participles, and dropped 5 g's. So by that metric, he used somewhat fewer informal pronunciations than during the pre-election debates. And I conclude that Limbaugh's little riff on black dialect is completely disconnected from the reality of Obama's presentation. It seems to be gratuitous "race-baiting", just as Herzberg suggests.
In this context, Ann Althouse's defense of Limbaugh strikes me as bizarre:
But Limbaugh didn't say: “Obama can turn on that black dialect when he wants to and turn it off.” He said: "This is what Harry Reid was talking about. Obama can turn on that black dialect when he wants to and turn it off." Hertzberg took out the part about Harry Reid!
Suppose that I respond to this by asserting again that there was no basis in Obama's speech for bringing up the topic, and adding "See, this is what Jesse Taylor was talking about — Ann’s a terrible person whose every move is designed to cocoon her fragile psyche from the crushing realization that she will never be particularly good at anything". [To avoid misunderstanding, I don't think any such thing.]
At this point, if Geoff Nunberg observed that my attack on Prof. Althouse's character was not justified by anything she wrote in that post, and must reflect some animus against her personally or against some group she belongs to, he'd be absolutely right.
And if Victor Mair then tried to defend me by saying
But Liberman didn't say "Ann's a terrible person whose every move is designed to cocoon her fragile psyche from the crushing realization that she will never be particularly good at anything." He said "This is what Jesse Taylor was talking about — Ann's a terrible person whose every move is designed to cocoon her fragile psyche from the crushing realization that she will never be particularly good at anything." Nunberg took out the part about Jesse Taylor!
Victor's defense would be technically true, but logically irrelevant. You can't defend a false characterization of someone's motivations or actions by noting that the attack was a paraphrase of a third party's remarks, especially if your reference is completely out of context.
[And really, IMHO, the most linguistically noteworthy aspect of Obama's speech was the phrase "college and career ready" — yet another achievement for Ben Zimmer's "most likely to succeed" WOTY nominee!]
[Update 2/26/2010 20:45 — as evidence of what some of Limbaugh's fans think this is all about, check out the comments at freerepublic.com:
Just in case you missed Obama talking without a teleprompter (I believe) today at the Governors Meeting, here is a funny moment. Well not really funny, like you want to laugh, more like sad funny that while he was talking about education and the need for improvement, he was mentioning Title 1 funds and said "AX"… Maybe President Obama needs to brush up on his pronunciation some before giving a speech on how we need to improve….Oh and the correct word is ASK.
There’s that negro dialect…
that dialect gets no response from me. I will repeat it back to them and ask them what it means.
Ah, he’s just playing to his base.
Just don’t axe him to see his birth certificate…
how he speaks depends on who this AH be talken too
Ax not wut u can do fer yo cuntree butt ax wut yo cuntree gonna do fer U!
A little ebonics for the soul
I don’t know the origin of this, but I know and work with many Black people who speak the same way; ‘aks’ where the word ‘ask’ is concerned. They understand what the word means, but it seems to me that is physically difficult for them to pronounce it correctly. Long ago, I attributed it to education level, but I’m not really sure if that is it either. Further, I live in the midwest and it is fairly prevalent here. It almost seems as if it is something they can turn on or off at will depending to whom they are speaking.
Harry was right (for once)… YoBama can seamlessly switch on the negro dialect when he wants to.
Obama is so pathetic. He’s afraid of being called “Uncle Tom” I guess.
For some reason, American Negroes have a difficult time with the word “ask.” They nearly always pronounce it “axe”. Michelle Obama has a horrible speech problem. She cannot pronounce the letters “st” or “sh”. I am not a speech pathologist, and I do not know why Negroes cannot pronounce certain letter combinations.
Maybe there can be some of the stimulus money alotted for studying this. I have always wondered why “Nergros” have a hard time with such word as ask (axe) and David (Davit) to name a couple. There is a college educated well raised “Negro” here at work that says ax instead of ask and I would love to know why?
Just brushing up on that negro dialect for when he really needs it…
And so on…]