Celebrating the Linguistic Significance of Martin Luther King Jr.

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[This is a guest post by Walt Wolfram, with Caroline Myrick, Jon Forrest, and Michael J. Fox.]

Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches are without peer in their public recognition and rhetorical significance. King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is rated as the number one speech of the twentieth century and several other speeches are ranked within the top 100. Given King’s prominence as a speaker and his leadership role in the Civil Rights Movement, it’s ironic that his sociolinguistic legacy has been relatively unexamined and ignored. There are no analyses of how he systematically manipulated regional, ethnic, and stylistic language features in different situations other than a couple of limited studies of his pitch and intonation, including a Language Log post in 2007 ("Martin Luther King's rhetorical phonetics").

In a forthcoming paper ("The Sociolinguistic Significance of Martin Luther King Jr."), we analyze how King’s speech indexes his regional, social, and ethnic identity in speaking to different audiences in different situations. Our results are worth considering in terms of their broader implications for language and social inequality.

We examined four different speaking events with different audiences, goals, and settings, summarized in the following table:

Speech Date Place Audience Purpose
“I have a dream” August 1963 Lincoln Monument, Washington D.C Mixed Inspire civil rights movement
“I’ve been to the mountaintop”
April,1968 Mason Temple, Memphis, TN Predominantly African American Sermon, social gospel
“Nobel Prize” December 1964 Oslo, Norway Predominantly white Formal Acceptance speech
Merv Griffin show July 1967 New York City, NY White interviewer, TV audience Personal conversation

We carefully measured the use of socially, regionally, and stylistically marked linguistic structures in each speech event.

  • The variation of unstressed (ing) in final syllables (swmmin’ vs. swimming or nothing vs. nothin’) is a frequently studied variable of English that often shows ethnicity, regionality, and style effects.
  • Released /t/, the full production of /t/ in words such as bet or poverty, indexes speaker traits ranging from learnedness and articulateness to gayness and political stance-taking.
  • The loss or vocalization of r in words such as fea’ for fear or fathuh for father is a well-established regional, social, and ethnic variable.
  • The deletion of the final stop in clusters such as col’ for cold and bes’ for best (consonant cluster reduction, or CCR) is a well-known trait of ethnic dialects in American English. Significantly more cluster reduction is found in vernacular African American English varieties than comparable European American varieties.
  • The absence of the verb be for are or is (e.g. You nice for You’re nice or She asking for She’s asking) is also an important marker of vernacular African American speech.
  • Finally, we measured King’s vowel system in each speech event and compared it with black and white vowel systems in the South.

Remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 15, 1929, attended segregated public schools in Georgia, and received his bachelor’s degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, an HBCU in Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had graduated. King’s early social networks, peers, and community were almost exclusively black, as were the social networks of his wife, who was raised in Marion, Alabama. King was socialized into the preaching ministry early and ordained at the age of 19. After three years studying theology at Crozer Theological Seminary, a predominantly white seminary located in Delaware County near Philadelphia, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing the residency for the doctorate in systematic theology in 1953. He accepted a pastoral call to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1954, serving that congregation until 1959. In 1960, he joined his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta where he served until his death. King’s adult social networks were much more expanded socially than his earlier life, indicating a number of intersecting ties and relationships that presented a complex portrait of his identity as a social leader who interacted with a wide swath of people and an array of institutions.

The analysis, based on current instrumental and quantitative techniques in sociolinguistics, shows both stability and flexibility across the different speech events. King’s regional status as a Southerner is consistently indicated in his vowels; for example, in his ungliding of the /ai/ diphthong in time and side so they sounded like tahm or sahd. Other vowel features are more aligned with African American Southern vowels as opposed to European American Southern vowels. King’s r-lessness, which again marks both ethnicity and Southernness, is also quite stable across speech events, but he shows one important departure. He produces a tap or trilled variant for r between vowels when he produces an r, so that the r in “the river of life” or in ‘their names will never appear in the who’s who” are flapped or trilled rather than retroflexed or bunched:

This is a “preacherly” phonetic trait that is not uncommon among African American preachers; he uses it in all his speech events, but more often in formal events like the Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The releasing of the t in a word like poverty is also common in more formal speaking contexts such as his Nobel Prize and the Dream speech:

The fact that the tap and released /t/ are used to some extent in all contexts, even in the talk-show conversation, projects a “preacherly” persona.

Overall, the features index ethnicity, regionality, audience, and performance in the different speech events in a way summarized by the table below:

Southern Formal Performance Informal
Dream r-lessness
Full be (are, is)
tap r
released /t/
tap r
full be
Mountaintop r-lessness
be del. (you nice)
tap r tap r
full be
be del
Merv Griffin r-lessness
be del.
ING be del.
Nobel Prize r-lessness
tap r
full be
released /t/
tap r
full be

So what’s the broader social significance of the overlapping and distinctive distribution of features across speech events? First, King’s speech is unambiguously and consistently marked as African American and Southern. His ethnic and regional identity is never compromised—regardless of the speech event. In an important way, he reflects what sociologist Michael Eric Dyson’s labels intentional blackness—“being Black through dialect, dress, and public prioritization of Black political issues” (Dyson 2008:9). At this same time, he shows stylistic flexibility in some features, using more (ING) and more full forms of be in more formal speeches.

King’s speech also reveals how embedded he is in the traditions and oratory of the black church. The tapping of r and the releasing of /t/ fall within this tradition, along with the relatively high incidence of full forms of the verb be (e.g. We are here vs. We’re here or We here), a trait of formal presentation style that goes hand-in-hand with other features of the preacherly tradition. King’s use of linguistic variables shows sensitivity to audience, interaction, and purpose, but his sociolinguistic persona is always that of the black, southern preacher.

Language Inequality and Social Justice

King never directly addressed linguistic inequality or even publicly discussed his own language variation to our knowledge. But remember that King’s approach to justice was inclusive, embodying the “injustice-anywhere-is-a-threat-to-justice-everywhere” creed. King’s speech embodied his African American and Southern identity during a period when these were among the most stigmatized and reviled varieties of English, topping the regional and social scales of “the worst English.” But ethnic and regional linguistic traits were shamelessly and confidently manifested by King, notwithstanding the low regard in which they were held (and still are). As one transformed racist noted in Beyond Fear: Twelve Spiritual Keys to Racial Healing, “I was so racist, I could not listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because of his accent” (Ababio-Clottey and Clottey 1999: 131). It is noteworthy that the content and rhetorical effect of King’s speeches ended up transcending the traditional associations of black and Southern speech, to the point where the New York City Daily News (January 9, 2015) described King’s speech portrayed in the movie Selma as “the rich cadences of King’s Georgia-based oratory.” This transformation should be a lesson from life.

That leads to an obvious question: Why do our public institutions—including government and public education from K-graduate school—ignore language within their increasing and broader institutional concern for diversity? Curiously, the insights of sociolinguistics are exempted or erased as institutions throughout the US celebrate Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, Juneteenth, and other occasions where we might learn from the example of Martin Luther King’s speech. That seems a shame, because his sociolinguistic transcendence should serve as a transformative model.

[Above is a guest post by Walt Wolfram, with Caroline Myrick, Jon Forrest, and Michael J. Fox]


  1. Brett Reynolds said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 7:08 am

    This Michael J Fox, not that MJF.

  2. Tim Martin said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

    Very informative post! Though I don't quite understand this part at the end:

    "Why do our public institutions—including government and public education from K-graduate school—ignore language within their increasing and broader institutional concern for diversity?"

    What does it mean that they ignore language? Do they try to get everyone to speak the same? Are you saying that in order to increase diversity, they should consciously recruit students who speak differently than others?

  3. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 17, 2016 @ 6:08 pm

    I'm a bit puzzled by the selection of poverty as an example of "released /t/". Since it's followed by a vowel, it cannot be "unreleased" by definition; the alveolar contact must be released to make the vowel possible. What is meant, I assume, is that it's not voiced/tapped, which is unusual in most accents of American English. But it certainly is released.
    (Side note: the term "unreleased" is not the best term in the world for what is usually implied. Technically speaking, an unreleased plosive would lead to the death of the talker. (I've seen this turn of phrase somewhere recently and I can't remember where; if you can point me in the right direction, I'll be grateful.) Inaudible release is more logical.)

  4. Jon Forrest said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 10:54 am


    You're absolutely correct about /t/ release in these environments. In using the term "released /t/" we're following some other literature on the subject–Podesva, Reynolds, Callier, and Baptiste (2015) directly, but the term is older than that. By released /t/ they mean a fully articulated /t/ (voiceless, with aspiration) since that articulation has strong social markings. It's true, too, that there isn't a good contrast to "released"; usually these forms are contrasted with other possible realizations (e.g. tapped) rather than calling them unreleased.

  5. Walt Wolfram said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    Our concern is that institutional programs on diversity are limited to a canon of concerns—race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, etc. Language diversity is typically excluded from these programs, notwithstanding the fact that “discrimination based on language variation is so commonly accepted, so widely perceived as appropriate, that it must be seen as the last back door to discrimination. And the door stands wide open!” (Lippi-Green 2012:73). Language is implicated in all of the traditional concerns of institutional diversity programs and worthy of being considered one of the central manifestations of diversity. But how many diversity programs related to language have been offered? We’re trying to change that (see Dunstan et al. “Educating the educated: Language diversity in the university backyard.” American Speech 90: 266-80), but it’s still quite rare and considered “innovative.” Our point is that diversity in language should be a part of institutional concern and discussion.

  6. Benjamin Lukoff said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

    We have a long, long way to go. It's not surprising, though. Before language diversity can effectively be addressed, language itself has to effectively be addressed, and as far as I can tell language education is still as stuck in the 1950s as it was when I was in school. That may be an exaggeration – they were, after all, attempting to address sexism, ableism, racism, etc., in language in the 1980s and 1990s – but people have to understand there's no such thing as a "right" form and a number of "wrong" forms of English first. Without that there's no hope of them understanding the nuances of those varieties of English. This misunderstanding goes through college-level English and beyond.

    Absolutely diversity in language should be a part of institutional concern and discussion. I'd love to see this happen. I'm no expert in education, but how can this be done when those in positions of power in institutions themselves don't understand it? This is still a society in which linguists are either thought of as polyglots or those who think "anything goes."

  7. Joe said,

    January 18, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    @Tim Martin: "What does it mean that they ignore language?"

    Much of the rhetorical analysis is focused solely on text rather than performance (eg, phonetics, in this case). In academic study, text is privileged when analyzing rhetoric – however, in other areas such as Black religious ministry, the rhetorical force is embodied in performance which not only includes the content of the text but also other factors such as phonetics, improvisation, and gesture.

  8. Guy said,

    January 19, 2016 @ 8:50 pm

    Including language variation in diversity programs is a worthwhile but politically daunting task. Many people see one of education's primary purposes as the stamping out of linguistic diversity as well as teaching children to engage in linguistic discrimination, although they wouldn't say so in those words. Efforts at teaching children about language variation are often perceived as assaults on education itself. Even traditional foreign language classes sometimes come under fire.

  9. Link love: language (65) | Sentence first said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

    […] On the sociolinguistic significance of Martin Luther King Jr. […]

  10. Tim Martin said,

    January 20, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    Thanks Walt, that makes more sense to me now.

  11. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 21, 2016 @ 6:53 am

    Thanks for the clarification Jon! I've looked at the Podesva et al. paper in the meantime, and I thought that that must have been where the term came from… But if it isn't, I'll try to trace it further back.
    BTW, the quote about literally unreleased plosives leading to dead speakers was from Peter Roach in a comment on his blog: "taken literally, an unreleased plosive would lead to the death of the speaker".

  12. J. Goard said,

    January 23, 2016 @ 4:42 am

    The most interesting thing to me about the "I have a dream" speech is how it (seems to) illustrate the temporary expansion of a grammatical construction due to a large proximate frequency, when he says, "let freedom ring" 15 or so times, and then transitions into the normally ungrammatical "and when we allow freedom ring…"

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