[xmca] Obama's English

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Sun Jun 08 2008 - 00:18:50 PDT

&nbsp;I'm not an admirer of Obama's politics (too anti-Chinese!), but I am a big fan of his intonation and his stress, and even his vocabulary and grammar.
&nbsp;
Let's look at the intonation and stress first. Here is one of the best known of many videos which came out drawing attention to the links between his mastery of the rhythms of black American English and the rhythms of popular music.
&nbsp;
http://kr.youtube.com/watch?v=BHEO_fG3mm4
&nbsp;
I guess what the non-linguist notices (what&nbsp;will.i.am and Scarlett Johannsen and company have noticed)&nbsp;is the cadences, and the intonation, and the stresses.
&nbsp;
It was the CREED,
written into the founding DOCuments,
that declared the DEStiny...
of the NAtion.&nbsp;.
&nbsp;
Four lines, four stresses, and sure enough, four complex syntactic constructions (first the founding documents, then the slaves and abolitionists, then the immigrants and pioneers, and then the union organizers, and the president who reached for the moon and the king who took us to the mountaintop).
&nbsp;
Now what I notice is that the vocabulary is for the most part straight Anglo-saxon ("creed" rather than "ideology", "blaze the trail" rather than "explore"). Using simple one and two syllable words makes it much easier&nbsp;to arrange the beats into measures.
&nbsp;
But it also means that the morphology will be simple, and the grammar correspondingly complex. What makes it even more complex is that&nbsp;Obama uses a lot of&nbsp;delayed topic constructions to create suspense and to put the stresses nearer the more salient end of the sentence. In English, utterances are constructed from ME to YOU, which is why we often begin a sentence with "I" but rarely end it with "me" (and why it is somewhat childish to say "Look at me!").
&nbsp;
Interestingly, Hillary doesn't do this very much, because she begins too many of her sentences with I, and that's where the stress tends to stay; the Daily Show made a rather cruel montage of her doing this:
&nbsp;
http://blog.indecision2008.com/2008/06/05/the-daily-show-summons-abe-lincoln-to-give-his-two-cents-on-obamas-nomination/
&nbsp;
(The montage is at 3.23).
&nbsp;
This makes it much more difficult for Hillary to build the kind of suspense that Obama does and impossible for her to end her lines with a stress, as popular music does.
&nbsp;
But Obama has&nbsp;a preference for these delayed topic constructions even in interviews, where he tends to use cleft sentences a lot and&nbsp;say things like this:
&nbsp;
What the most important thing is now is...patience.
&nbsp;
This actually creates TWO forms of suspense. Not only do you have to wait for the topic of the sentence but you also have to wait and see if he can actually get the sentence to come out grammatically (he almost always does).
&nbsp;
Notice how, after delivering a VERY complex sentence rich in complex vocabulary, difficult imagery, intricate historical references, and coherent rhetorical links, he provides a "translation" into three simple&nbsp;words" "Yes we can".
&nbsp;
These three words, of course, do not really "reconstrue" what Obama has just said. But they ARE the kind of thing that good English teachers are always doing.&nbsp;
&nbsp;
What "Yes we can" does is to provide an abstract link between&nbsp;very DIFFERENT ways of stating the idea of opportunity and possibility (the founding documents, the slaves and abolitionists, the union organizers, the suffragettes, JFK's "race to the moon" speech, and King's "mountaintop" speech).&nbsp;
&nbsp;
So we can see that Obama's English is not SIMPLY a matter of reconstruing complex grammar as a simple three word formula. In fact, the complex grammar is also a reconstrual; each sentence is an example of a rather vague abstract concept, the very general, prospective idea of potential that he imagines all Americans share.
&nbsp;
This double&nbsp;skill is essential to good teaching, of course.
&nbsp;
T: IĘd like to check that you know the name of the things. Ok. WhatĘs this?(picture card)
Ss: Book
etc.
&nbsp;
It's&nbsp;the ability to reconstrue complex intra-mentally prepared wordings as relatively simple words. But it's simultaneously the ability to reconstrue wordings as VERY complex&nbsp;inter-personal DISCOURSE. In a way, it's a highly compressed version of LSV's genetic law: the meanings emerge inter-mentally as complex discourse, and then are compressed intramentally as complex syntax, only to be reconstrued again as simple syntax and shared with the audience.
&nbsp;
Mike recently pointed my attention to an old article by Hutchins on Trobriand language disputes in which Hutchins talks about how very complex logical arguments are made when you don't&nbsp;have written language available.
&nbsp;
http://lchc.ucsd.edu/Histarch/fe79v1n2.PDF
&nbsp;
Spoken argumentation is a different language (and the constraints on the memory, for example, reflect that), but if anything it is more complex than written language and not less. The&nbsp;problem is US; we are used to seeing complexity written down and we barely recognizes when somebody talks it at us. No wonder Halliday said that the invention of the tape recorder was the true beginning of linguistics.
&nbsp;
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education
&nbsp;
.
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Received on Sun Jun 8 00:21 PDT 2008

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