July 27, 2004

A new record for within-U.S. linguistic prejudice?

In earlier posts, we've discussed cultural prejudices about the speech of southerners and other groups within the U.S. Up to this point, Michael Lewis' reporting on the Microsoft anti-trust trial was my touchstone for density of linguistic prejudice in journalism, but now there's a new contender. It's a series of columns by Christie Vilsack, published about ten years ago in the Mount Pleasant (Iowa) News.

Christie Vilsack is the wife of the governor of Iowa, and a scheduled speaker (tonight?) at the Democratic convention in Boston. I haven't been able to find a copy of her columns, which I suppose must have been dug up by the active researchers at the RNC, but they were discussed and quoted at length in a 7/26/2004 article by David R. Guarino in the Boston Herald. (Guarino also has an Election 2004 blog, but there's no extra material there, at least so far). The story has also been picked up by the AP, the Washington Post, the Washington Times and other outlets.

Quotations from Vilsack's columns (published in 1994 and 1996) have her visting Atlantic City, NJ, and blasting people from the part of the country where I now live:

"Later, on the boardwalk, I heard mothers calling to their children, 'I'll meet yoose here after the movie,' "she wrote. "The only way I can speak like residents of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania is to let my jaw drop an inch and talk with my lips in an 'O' like a fish. I'd rather learn to speak Polish."

She also attended the Atlanta Olympics, and had this to say about the people she met there:

"When I ask for directions, I can't understand the slurred speech of southern Americans, who are so polite and eager to please," Vilsack said.

And she was made uneasy by those tricky bi-dialectal African-Americans:

"I am fascinated at the way some African-Americans speak to each other in an English I struggle to understand, then switch to standard English when the situation requires."

Guarino positions Vilsack in the traditionally despised role of censorious schoolmarm:

An educator for 30 years and former eighth-grade language teacher, Vilsack has made language and literacy priorities as first lady.

She has become a key power player in Iowa politics and is widely credited with breathing new life into Kerry's flagging presidential bid in January with her endorsment a week before the kickoff Iowa caucuses.

At the Jan. 12 endorsement event, Kerry said of Vilsack, "Christie is the first teacher, not just the first lady."

There is a certain amount of consistency here -- like Michael Lewis, Christie Vilsack is quoted as scorning the speech of southerners and people from New Jersey. Her problem with African-Americans is a somewhat unusual one, since they mostly get slammed for not mastering the standard version of English at all, so to be disturbed that they switch back and according to circumstances seems egregiously boorish. (Well, she wrote that she was fascinated, but Guarino is clearly expecting us to conclude that "fascinated" = "disturbed" in schoomarmish, though without the context it's hard to tell whether this is what she meant -- maybe she was just fascinated by the discovery of dialectal code-switching?) And I wonder whether Vilsack has any idea what Polish sounds like, or was just picking on Poles as an instance of a stereotypically despicable group.

Without the full context of the columns, it's hard to tell, but I'll speculate that what underlies Vilsack's quoted comments is the visceral distaste that some people feel for the speech patterns of particular other groups. Such distaste seems evident in Michael Lewis' reportorial obsession with the "booming hick drawl" of Microsoft's lawyer, for example. A classical example is Henry Higgins' exhortation of cockney Eliza Doolittle not to "sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon". The blogger at justoneminute (himself from New Jersey) cites an even more spectacular example:

This isn't all new - if I recall, it was H.L. Mencken who observed that the most effective method of birth control yet invented was a Brooklyn accent.

It's not easy to see just what determines which accents will seem disgusting to someone, and which will seem merely exotic or even attractive. Certainly racism, anti-semitism and so on are part of the picture, but probably not all of it, since these don't seem to explain the widespread prejudice against New Jersey (where I proudly lived for 15 years, myself), or the analogous prejudice in Europe against the speech patterns of Belgians. I've heard spectacularly prejudiced observations from Dutch people about Flemish speech, or from French people about Walloon speech. (Note to Americans: if a French person comments on your command of the French language by observing that they thought you were Belgian, it's probably not a compliment).

Meanwhile, Chistie Vilsack's husband Tom has apologized for signing an English-only bill a couple of years ago, which he says was forced on him by a Republican-controlled legislature).

OK, everyone, make a note: if you want to be a politician in 21st-century America, take a linguistics course and learn how to think and talk about dialect variation in a rational way.

Avoid those embarrassing gaffes! You too can learn to define and promote language standards without treating non-standard speech as lawlessness, stupidity, disease, laziness, duplicity or bad posture!


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 27, 2004 02:08 PM