Thursday, November 13, 2003

How People Talk

Last week, Languagehat blogged about an article in The New Yorker about Silvio Berlusconi, which included a mention of how the way Berlusconi talks is so different from his opponents.
[Anthropologist Mariella] Pandolfi says that, for her, the great irony of Italian politics is that all the likely candidates of the center-left... speak an Italian that's elegant but completely incomprehensible and elitist. "It's the language of the priests, the courts, the language of authority,... whereas the language that unites Italy today is Berlusconi's television language. His grammar is dreadful. He gets the subjunctive wrong. Give him three seconds on television and he makes four mistakes. But you discover that everybody loves his mistakes. That's his power."
This got me thinking about politicians and how they use language. Much has been made of the way British Prime Minister Tony Blair uses Estuary English [BBC | The Independent | University College London Phonetics and Linguistics], and apparently even the Queen's accent has shifted over the years. Somewhat closer to Berlusconi's language misusage are W.'s myriad malapropisms.

But the thing that hit me this morning, while listening to a bit of the 30-hour Senate debate over delays in the appointment of a handful of ultraconservative judges on C-SPAN Radio, I was struck by Republican Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma and how he relayed a tale in English and Spanish. While Inhofe's Spanish grammar was fine, the way he used the language made it sound so odd. It wasn't like Joe Liebermann's toss-off usage of "mi familia" in the second Democratic debate a few months ago, which just sounded painful; instead Inhofe was trying to speak Spanish with the same cadence he would use for a formal English debate. The emphasis fell in odd places and the rhythm of the language was horribly off beat. Maybe he was overly influenced by the setting -- speaking from the well of the Senate must be different than talking on the street or in an office in Tulsa -- or maybe he was just pushing through it to try to make a political point or two, but it just sounded wrong.

I'm all in favor of politicos -- and pretty much everyone else -- learning and using more than just English, but other languages have different tones, rhythms, frequencies that are key to making the language sound "right." Arte has a small feature (in French) about this, "L'oreille ethnique," that aired on the Radio Day of European Cultures.

Maybe it's just me however. I always seemed to spend more time in language classes listening to the accent and trying to get the sound right than trying to memorize the vocabulary. I could get a few sentences to sound very good, but I could only get out a few sentences. (The other problem with this method is that it helps to have a native speaker for a teacher: My Ancient Greek and Latin teacher, with her very thick Bostonian accent, would have been a poor model for pronunciation.)

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