Transcribin' again

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There's some interesting socio-politico-linguistic discussion, along with links to a lot more of the same, in Dylan Stableford's post "Was the Associated Press transcription of Obama’s CBC speech ‘racist’?", The Cutline 9/26/2011. I don't have time this morning to add significantly to this discussion, but in any case, I'd largely be recapitulating the material covered in this earlier LL posts:

"The internet pilgrim's guide to g-dropping", 5/10/2004
"Empathetic -in'", 10/18/2008
"Palin's tactical g-lessness", 10/18/2008
"Pickin' up on those features also", 2/29/2008
"Eye dialect in the newspapers", 5/7/2008
"Aksking again", 2/25/2010
"Pawlenty's linguistic 'southern strategy'?", 3/17/2011
"Symbols and signals in g-dropping", 3/23/2011
"Automatic classification of g-dropping", 6/12/2011
"Ask Language Log: Writing 'gonna' or 'going to'", 6/25/2011

Stableford is referring to a discussion of the issue on Chris Hayes' MSNBC show. I generally agree with  John McWhorter's side in that discussion, rather than Karen Hunter's side.

But it's worth noting that if you hold your nose and wade into the comments sections of various sites to look at the reactions to this issue, you'll find stuff like this:

……..stop complainin' (drop the g)……….git to workin' (drop the g)……..git outen them slippers y'all been wearin' (drop the g) all day an' hep me git y'all some jobs …….whatever a "job" is………'cause ah ain't never had one……don'cha see ?…

Notice the Chimp is Wearing his Dark Shade Face make up, and he’s working his Best Buckwheat ‘Pork N Beans’ Semi Sambo Accent for the Moronic Mutants to eat up like a bowl of steaming chitlins and collar greens…..y-all god’s childrens loves chitlins…

Feel the rage, feel the hatred of the darling negro. It’s all about the negrofication of America.

Those are from Andrew Breitbart's site, but you can find similar stuff in many other places, including in ineffectively moderated comments sections of mainstream media outlets. For example, the comments at on the Stableford post include:

Plain and Simple….This Kenyan Pimp can not SPEAK without the aid of his trusty teleprompter….
His 'Uhh's, Ahhh's, Ummm's, ect, ect. make him sound dumber than a pro sports athlete…

Didi anyone notice he didn't say, "we have work to do" as is stated by the AP version? He said, "we got work to do". Now, if they had stated that little goof can you imagine how they blacks would be yelling racism. Why don't they just learn to speak english and then there won't be any problems.

blacks are capable of speaking correctly, but they have CHOSEN to use their own "black dialect" for years because they want to separate themselves from whitey. Most blacks in America are the most racist people you will ever meet.

No speech by anyone should be cleaned up!!! It should be printed letter for letter, word for word how it is said!! Why cover up bad grammer?? that's covering up stupidity!!

Summing up briefly: "Eye dialect" in transcriptions is a questionable journalistic choice, whether the speaker is Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, or Barack Obama; but it's not necessarily a racist choice, and I don't think that it was a racist choice in this case. However, there are a lot of racists out there; and many of them use eye dialect as a focus for their feelings of disgust and hated.

[I've left comments closed on this post, because I'm going to be in meetings or classes most of the day. As Anil Dash explains, "If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault"; and I won't have time today to carry out his anti-asshole prescriptions. But if you have something substantive to say, send it to me by email and I'll add it.]

Update — More here: Tommy Christopher, "AP Reporter Responds To Chris Hayes Panel Debate On Racism Of Droppin’ G’s From Obama Speech". Mediaite 9/25/2011, which quotes the AP reporter in question, Mark Smith:

Normally, I lean toward the clean-it-up school of quote transcribing – for everyone. But in this case, the President appeared to be making such a point of dropping Gs, and doing so in a rhythmic fashion, that for me to insert them would run clearly counter to his meaning. I believe I was respecting his intent in this. Certainly disrespect was the last thing I intended.

[As of 9:00 p.m. Philadelphia time, I'm opening comments for a while. We'll see how it goes.]


  1. Andy Averill said,

    September 27, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

    Stepping nimbly between various landmines here, I can only say that trying to reproduce dialectal spelling in print, unless you're Mark Twain, is pretty much a losing battle, and is bound to make the speaker look just a little dumber/pandering, no matter which dialect we're talking about.

    Reproducing the speaker's word choice, on the other hand, is legitimate, in fact almost mandatory. If Obama had said "peace up" at some point, "peace up" it would have to be in the trancript. Presumably he didn't…

  2. GeorgeW said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 6:29 am

    "But in this case, the President appeared to be making such a point of dropping Gs, and doing so in a rhythmic fashion, that for me to insert them would run clearly counter to his meaning. I believe I was respecting his intent in this." (Reporter Mark Smith)

    I agree. This was an intentional means of accommodation and connecting with this particular audience. To report it in a fashion that implies state-of-the-union style would miss an important feature of this speech.

    [(myl) There's a difference between "reporting" and "transcribing". No one (that I'm aware of) would object to an article discussing Obama's sociophonetic choices — we've posted many such discussions here. The controversial question is whether such discussions should be worked into the transcript of a speech via the use of "eye dialect".

    This issue is controversial for several reasons, including these: (1) Eye-dialect is generally available (or at least generally used) only to signal socially-stigmatized choices; (2) The choice to use eye-dialect in a transcript brings editorial judgment into a place where it arguably doesn't belong; (3) Eye-dialect is a notoriously inexact way to represent choices among speech varieties.

    So, for example, Governor Rick Perry's native variety of English includes the pronunciation commonly written as -in', monophthongization of /aj/, etc. This is an important part of who he is. Does that mean that his speeches should normally be transcribed with e.g. "tryin'" in place of "trying", "bah" in place of "by", etc.? I don't think so — that would make him seem like a quaint figure of fun. But then suppose he gives a talk in a formal setting in the north, and adapts his pronunciations in the direction of standard TV-announcer American. (I don't know whether he'd do that — but G.W. Bush certain did.) How do you represent that? In my opinion, you don't — in either case, if you have something to say about how he talks, you say it directly, rather than trying to smuggle it in to the way you transcribe his remarks.]

  3. GeorgeW said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 7:41 am

    MYL: I was referring implicitly to the eye dialect.

    I agree that this is problematic and would be inappropriate for someone whose normal pronunciation is such. But, this was a case of accommodation to a specific audience. That was newsworthy and, I think, appropriate to report it orthographically as well as descriptively.

    Often, eye dialect is used to be disdainful and condescending. I didn't think this was the case in this instance.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    In song lyrics, and even song titles, -in' is sometimes used to differentiate pronunciation, and it's not at all related to social status. I can see someone extending that to transcribing something spoken. I also agree with the reasons given why that's not a good choice.

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