May 31, 2006

Grunt and Grumble: sociolinguistic speculation at Slate

A few months ago, it was Jason Horowitz telling us about the "City Girl Squawk" of younger urban women ("The Affect: sociolinguistic speculation at the NYO", 3/22/2006; "Further thoughts on The Affect", 3/22/2006). Now it's Jon Katz telling us about the "Grunt and Grumble" of older rural men. ("Grunt and Grumble: Why do men in the country talk that way?", Slate 5/29/2006).

Both pieces are interesting examples of the genre of verbal caricature. I don't have time to say much about Katz's characterization of rural men right now, since I've got an appointment in a few minutes on the other side of campus (for a cute Language Log post about older-generation rural speech, see this one). But I'll mention one thing that struck me. Horowitz's caricature was aimed specifically at young women in the American northeast; Katz's caricature is pitched as a characterization of all rural men, although his observations are apparently limited to his neighbors in upstate New York.

Upstate New Yorkers are not exactly core Yankees, but they're not that far out in the fractal penumbra of Yankeehood; and there's an old stereotype of rural Yankees, represented by various anecdotes about Calvin Coolidge -- "silent Cal".

Coolidge was both the most negative and remote of Presidents, and the most accessible. He once explained to Bernard Baruch why he often sat silently through interviews: "Well, Baruch, many times I say only 'yes' or 'no' to people. Even that is too much. It winds them up for twenty minutes more."


Both his dry Yankee wit and his frugality with words became legendary. His wife, Grace Goodhue Coolidge, recounted that a young woman sitting next to Coolidge at a dinner party confided to him she had bet she could get at least three words of conversation from him. Without looking at her he quietly retorted, "You lose." And in 1928, while vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota, he issued the most famous of his laconic statements, "I do not choose to run for President in 1928."

And on his first day of retirement, back in his small hometown in Vermont, it's said that he went down to the local store, made his selections, and checked out via the following exchange:

Store owner: [rings up purchase, displays total] Been away.
Coolidge: [counts out money] Ayuh.

But I don't think you'd hear that, even as a joke, in rural Texas.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 31, 2006 10:09 AM