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Presidential Speeches

April 23, 2009

Now that the United States has an African American President, will attitudes change towards the perception of African American English? Many people have commented that Obama is an eloquent orator, but does he have some features of AAE in his speech?

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and did not grow up in a community of primarily African Americans. In fact, he did not find this community until later on in life with his experiences in New York and particularly in Chicago. So it stands to reason that his acquisition of features of AAE occurred later on in life as well, and therefore he could not be considered a native speaker.

When one takes a look at Obama’s speeches, however, it is clear that his style employs certain rhetorical strategies synonymous with African American English.

In a speech given on the campaign trail at Nashua, New Hampshire, President Barack Obama employs several rhetorical strategies found in African American English. You can find the full text here.

The now-famous ‘yes we can!’ mantra was adopted as a campaign slogan. One of his most powerful and most quoted speeches employed the use of lots of repetition and alliterative word-play, image-making, call-and response (when the speaker calls out to the crowd to produce a specific and often repetitious response or affirmation), spontaneity, boasting, and proverbial statements. These are all powerful rhetorical strategies found in AAE. Although Obama refrains from using phonological markers (pronunciation) found in AAE in this speech, influence from the African American community is clearly present, and his speeches at times recall the inflections used by black preachers.

Here’s another Obama speech given at a church on father’s day, this time in front of a predominantly black audience:

Does there appear to be any difference between the two speeches? In the content or the way they were given?

Take a look at this speech by former President and Vice-President Bill Clinton and Al Gore on the campaign trail in 1992.

Are any of the rhetorical strategies used by Gore and Clinton familiar? Can you find examples of call-and-response, boasting or bragging, conquering foes (in this case the political opposition), exaggerated language, and spontaneity?

So if Presidents of the United States of America, past and present, are using aspects of African American English, what is its place in America today? Are Obama’s speeches and acceptance into mainstream American society a sign that AAE is becoming more mainstream and accepted?

For an interesting and more linguistically in-depth look at Obama’s speech cadences, check out this cool piece that aired on NPR.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Miranda Cohen permalink
    May 1, 2011 3:11 pm

    I am not sure that the presence of features of African American English in mainstream American English heralds a greater acceptance of the language itself. Just because these features are present does not mean that the mainstream public identifies them as features of AAE. Obama’s and Clinton’s speeches are not labeled as Black or African American, but as markers of public figures who have stage presence and high level public speaking skills. In other words, regardless of the origin of these rhetorical devices and inflections, the features of AAE are stripped of their ethnolinguistic identity.

    Furthermore, mainstream white America accepts rhetorical features, intonation, stress patterns, but not habitual be, not the deletion of consonant clusters, not metathesis. President Obama and President Clinton are not using these phonological, syntactic-semantic features in their speech because the mainstream American public would not consider these features to reflect a well-educated, polished speaker with whom they can identify.

    But on the other hand, maybe the suprasegmental and rhetorical aspects of AAE incorporated into these Presidential speech styles are tiny steps towards changing standard language ideologies in America, particularly those ideologies that interpret Black English as bad English.

Trackbacks

  1. Why Would You Study That Bad English? « Word. The Online Journal on African American English

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