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Obama’s English –Too Good to be True?

July 1, 2010

United States President Barack Obama

Recently, the media has been reporting the “findings” of a fraud parading as a linguist –what else is new? Once again, as in the days of the Oakland Resolution controversy, the media is plaguing the public with false information. This time around, CNN reported on an analysis of Obama’s speech made by Paul J.J. Payack (president of the unscientific, for-profit company, Global Language Monitor). The original article, which was soon updated after ACTUAL linguists became involved, included a lengthy spew of meaningless numbers arguing that President Obama’s speech was too “professorial” for the American public, due to a grade level rating of 9.8, on a scale intended for writing, and not  speech.

Aside from the invalidity of those results (as speech cannot be analyzed with methods particular to writing), as well as the ambiguous claim that either Obama is too elite for the U.S. or Americans too uneducated for his speech, one thing is clear –America’s expectations for President Obama’s use of English. CNN’s article, renamed Language Mavens Exchange Words Over Obama’s Oval Office Speech (despite the lack of an actual ‘exchange’ of views between linguists and Payack), revealed particularly low expectations for the president’s speech, perhaps due to his African American English dialect.

While the ivy-educated president does indeed use African American English (AAE) rhetorical devices, such as repetition and image-making speech, he rarely uses AAE linguistic features such as “fitna” or copula absence. Regardless, the media seems to be feeding the misconception that all Blacks speak AAE similarly and that these speakers are  uneducated. With this mind, it’s no wonder people are criticizing the president over his rhetoric and word choice — his Standard English, 9.8 grade level speech on the BP oil spill (yet another of Payack’s mindless calculations) surpasses their expectations. Obama’s hard-earned Harvard Law degree and specialization in the nuanced language of the constitution must pale in comparison to a few random numbers, right?

For CNN and Payack to suggest stripping Obama of his extensive vocabulary, and the “long” sentences he used to explicate the American government’s disaster-relief plan simply because stereotypes (also created and propagated by the media)  dictate them as uncommon for an African American English speaker, is to further instill these stereotypes into the  perception of the masses.
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