June 25, 2004

Rural-urban bidialectalism and politics

The June 19-25 issue of The Economist reports (p. 33 of the print edition) that Claire McCaskill, who is running for governor of Missouri, has been documented by the St Louis Post-Dispatch as having pronounced the state's name "Missourah" in a commercial aimed at rural areas but "Missouree" in ads running in the cities, and (if I read the implication right) is being portrayed as two-faced and untrustworthy for it. Funny, it is generally accepted as the height of sociolinguistic sophistication to shift the shiftable aspects of your speech (vowel quality being a prime example) in the direction of the speech of those you are speaking to. A mark of respect, politeness, solidarity [though people may reject your attempt at solidarity if they think you're just imitating them, as Ray Girvan points out to me by email]. We are in awe of the Swiss when we learn that if two of them are speaking to each other in French and an Italian speaker joins them, they are likely to switch into Italian just to be polite. Yet in American politics, linguistic sophistication (like almost everything else) may actually be held against you (as I believe I mentioned once before). Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 25, 2004 07:20 PM