3 05 2009

(I’m lifting another comment from an online news story.

It’s a bit further down here.)

I grew up in East Texas in the 1950s and ’60s. My mom was a Scottish immigrant, and, under her influence, while making my weary way to adulthood in Texas, I read a lot of classic novels from England.

My dad, meanwhile, was a classic Texas farmboy redneck.

So it was nasal slang all day at school from my peers, and again at home each night from my dad — as against my mom’s orderly Scotch English and the elegant British English of those old novels. The cognitive dissonance was stunning. The linguistic dissonance was worse. My dad and my peer-group lost the battle for my soul (a poor prize at best, I guess!) because I disliked them both. My mom and those English novelists seemed to share certain ideals of honor, gentlemanly behavior, and economic disinterestedness. My peers and my dad, on the other hand, posited a world where toughness and business success were the only recognized manly virtues (aside from going to church a lot, of course).  I joined up whole-heartedly on the side of my mom and The Sceptered Isle, and gladly brushed the dust of Texas off my shoes (not boots!).

I went to college in the North and majored in English.

Only those who have grown up in poverty in the sticks, speaking the stripped-down language of a place and time where “danger is double and pleasures are few”, can appreciate how desperately such a person may struggle to leave behind not only the benighted place and time, but also its characteristic dialect. Even if one does not have a fine ear for language, the associations with the dialect are all bad.

(I think of James Baldwin here, for some reason.)

In light of the above, imagine my disgust eight years ago when I heard George W. Bush’s twangy malapropisms begin emanating from Washington and the Highest Seat in the Land! Conversely, imagine my pleasure eight years later as I’m beginning to hear the cultivated tones of Barack Obama from that same lofty seat!

I listened to Mr. Obama’s third news conference Wednesday night and immediately decided to post something on this blog about the way he speaks — which meant that I spent quite a while thinking in detail about why I felt enlightened after listening to him. (Yes, ASIDE from the fact that he was saying mostly things I agreed with!)

And then, today, wonderfully!, I was spared the trouble of trying to figure it all out in detail when I read the best description I’ve ever heard of the difference between the ways Bush and Obama talk. It is a post commenting on the Leonard Cohen column in the New York Times of 4/29/2009:

“Mr. Cohen, it is not the language, it is the quality of thought that is wonderful in a politician. What people see in this president and did not in Mr. Bush, is the ability to express his own high caliber thinking in his own words which he has thought about before expressing them publicly. His language makes clear that this time around the presidency is not a committee of oligarchs for whom the president is the spokesman.

President Obama talks, listens, thinks, answers and sometimes rethinks. This is new for this generation. You just have to listen: Bush wanted to be obeyed; that was clear. And he refused to take responsibility for errors. In 9th grade language his speeches were either lies or excuses. President Obama, on the other hand, wants to be right and he lets the people in on his plans and ideas. Nevertheless he can also be deceptive because he uses language as a painter of fine art uses his palette of colors  and his fine brushes to achieve shadow and shading. Mr. Bush did the best he could with his box of seven crayons.

— Moishepipik34, NYC”

(My thanks to Moishepipik34 for explaining so well and to the New York Times and Mr. Cohen for creating the occasion for him to do so.)