October 11, 2004

"Sort Of": As American as Heinz Ketchup

The New York Post's Page Six gossip column made a little foray into sociolinguistic analysis recently, with an item on Kerry's choice of hedges:

THAT John Kerry had better watch his tongue -- it's starting to betray his elitist leanings. The other day, he said, "This president sort of wandered back." Language mavens say the use of "sort of" as an adverb is a subtle indicator of upper-class origins or aspirations. You won't catch any good ol' boys in those vital swing states saying "sort of."

Not hardly. "Sort of" was country before country was cool -- in fact, before "cool" was cool.

The Post's writer didn't indicate which "linguistic mavens" he had in mind, but the idea that "sort of" is an upper-class affectation came as news to Paul Kay, whose 1984 paper on "sort of" is still the locus classicus for the topic. And in fact "sort of" is a staple of country lyrics, though often spelled as "sorta." For example:

I went to the country just the other day/To see my Uncle Bill and sorta pass the time away. Hank Williams, "Everything's Okay," Hank Williams

Across the alley from the Alamo lived a pinto pony and a Navajo/ Who sang a sort of Indian Hideho. "Across the alley from the Alamo," Bob Wills

And his eyes turn sorta misty as his heart begins to glow... "Ballad of the Alamo," Marty Robbins

You put me through some changes, Sorta like a Waring blender "Poor Pitiful Me," Terri Clark/Linda Ronstadt

Well I`ve been sorta worried About Santa Claus this year. "Santa's Gonna Come in a Pickup Truck," Alan Jackson

It was misty in the canyon, the light was sorta dim. "Rider on the Rim," Red Steagall

But the pride sorta died when the man got weary eyed. "The Christmas Trail," Don Edwards

One boy sorta snickered when the roll was read. "Vidalia," Sammy Kershaw

Yet I always sort of missed her / Since that last sad night I kissed her "Spanish is the Loving Tongue," Numerous artists

It could leave you with the suspicion that the Page Six crowd doesn't actually know who Bob Wills was.

True, Kerry tends to say "sort of" more than "sorta," but if that's the variable the Page Six writer had in mind, you could charge Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan with having elitist leanings, too. But it's Kerry's misfortune that anything he does is liable to be tainted as effete . Windsurfing may be "the poor man's sailing," but Kerry has managed to singlehandely turn it into a rich boy's diversion.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at October 11, 2004 11:36 AM