Belated Thoughts on Obama’s Accent

Barack Obama

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This post is four years late. I admit it. The president’s accent has already been scrutinized ad nauseum, and there have been political controversies about this very topic. But after watching a speech by Obama this morning, and finding his accent intruiging, I decided to offer my take.

Debating presidential accents is nothing new. Who can forget the way America greeted JFK‘s odd variant of New England, or the questions posed about the authenticity of George W. Bush‘s Texas twang. Presidents seem to have unusually malleable accents, and our current president is no different. With that in mind, here is Obama’s official take on the matter, in his own words, from an interview in 2008:

My father was from Kenya so I’ve got an Arab-sounding name, and I think most people know that I was raised by my mom who was from Kansas, which is why I’ve got a Kansas-sounding accent…

I’m not quite sure I’d agree with that statement. But let’s examine some clips. Here is a recent speech Obama posted on his YouTube channel:

Of the places Obama grew up in or was shaped by, Chicago actually sticks out the most for me. He slightly raises and tenses the “a” in words like “last” and “that,” with perhaps the most marked Great Lakes-type pronunciation of this vowel being the “pull back” (“pull behk“) you find at 0:55. The Chicago-ness (albeit mild) of Obama’s speech may strike one as peculiar (he didn’t move there until he was nearly in his mid-twenties), but the city had a profound impact on his life, so I’m not surprised he has a touch of the local accent.

I don’t quite see the Kansas connection, though, save maybe a hint of a twang here or there*. Not to mention that, to put it crudely, a “Kansas accent” isn’t a thing. Renowned linguist William Labov identifies at least two accents in the state, as does the Nationwide Speech Project, and linguist/dialect hobbyist Rick Aschmann identifies a whopping 4-5 accents in Kansas, depending on the accent boundaries you’re referencing.

What I can say is that Obama’s maternal relatives were mostly from southern part of the state. Labov identifies that area as speaking with a South Midland accent, a region which tends to blend Southern and Northern features. Taking this into consideration, let’s see if we can find a bit more “Southern Kansas” in Obama’s speech when he is addressing a crowd in the very same region:

I’d tentatively say there’s a bit more twang in his accent here, and perhaps a slightly increased tendency toward glide deletion. But I don’t hear that much of a difference. It’s worth noting, however, that he is talking to democratic voters in a Red State. Since his audience is a group of people who probably disassociate themselves from the surrounding political environment, slipping into a local accent may hurt Obama more than it helps him. Although I couldn’t say for sure.

This post wouldn’t be complete without addressing the elephant in the room: the president’s relationship with African American Vernacular English. To give you an idea of the criticism the President has endured over this issue, I direct you to this inexcusable comment from Camille Paglia in 2008 of the otherwise excellent Salon.com:

A major gaffe this summer has been that, in trying to act more casual and folksy to appeal to working-class white voters, Obama has resorted to a cringe-making use of inner-city black intonations and jokey phrasings — exactly the wrong tactic.

I think this paragraph is cringe-making.

For reference, this is a clip of the kind of situation that caused this hubbub:

While I don’t agree with Paglia’s conclusions (or terminology), I will concede that Obama adopts some AAVE features here: his rhoticity (final r) is weaker than normal at many points, and he more frequently falls into AAVE prosodic patterns (specifically a tendency toward high tone at the beginning of sentences**, although I’ve heard him do this in other speeches as well).

There is also a fascinating and complex moment that occurs at approximately 2:55 in the video. Obama starts off a sentence with “Most of us was …” then, after a tiny pause, corrects the “was” to “were.” “Most of us was…” is a perfectly valid construction in AAVE, even if it isn’t part of standard English. When Obama corrects himself from the former to the latter, what is going on in his head? I don’t want to speculate as to why Obama checks himself there, but find it very interesting that he did.

In any case, it’s clear that Obama made a deliberate choice to adopt some of the presumable dialect features of the crowd he was addressing. Whether or not I agree with this choice is not something I’m comfortable deciding. But I’d point out that our president is not the first politician to switch up his speech, and I doubt he will be the last (see such cases as Clinton, Hillary; Blair, Tony; or Kennedies, Most).

Presidents are a unique breed. They are often seeking, rootless people. Obama was raised by Kansans in Hawai’i and Indonesia. George W. Bush was raised by a New Englander and a New Yorker in Texas. JFK, while associated with Eastern Massachusetts, spent various part of his upbringing in the Bronx, Westchester County and Connecticut. Presidents typically have strange relationships to their roots and regional identities.

But I’ll stop my yapping and open up the floor. What do you think of Obama’s accent(s)? Actually, let’s broaden this up a little: what do you think of any presidents accent?


*For the more phonetically-inclined, my specific objection here is that Obama’s GOAT and GOOSE sets are too conservative–citing Labov once again, their fronting is a pretty important marker of South Midland speech.

**This feature of AAVE was given academic credence by linguists Sun-Ah Jun and Christina Foreman in a 1996 study of African Americans in Los Angeles. However, you can hear this feature in one of the most famous sentences in human history, Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream…” Dr. King hits the first two words very strongly “I HAD a dream,” whereas General American English would put most of the emphasis on the final word. I think that this prosodic feature is part of what gives the speech its spine-tingling power: King isn’t passively talking about a dream he had the other night, but telling us that he emphatically, actively dreams of a better future.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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23 Responses to Belated Thoughts on Obama’s Accent

  1. Thomas says:

    I’m curious what the two accents that ANAE and the Nationwide Speech Project identify for Kansas. I’ll I’ve seen is Midland and an area to the west of that with no name. I’m assuming it’s sort of a transition zone between the Midland and the West.

    • Thomas says:

      *All I’ve seen (Now you know a bit about my accent)

    • trawicks says:

      Labov roughly divides Kansas into North and South, with the Southern variety curving upwards to the Northeastern part of the state (Topeka, etc.). The NSP does the opposite, dividing the state into East and West (I have less knowledge about this study, BTW, but figured I’d put a competing group of “dialect mappers” in the post for good measure).

      Rick Aschmann’s map doesn’t have quite the scientific rigor as Labov’s, but he features many more speakers. He indicates an Eastern/Northeastern accent (Topeka,Toronto), a Central accent (Wichita, Abilene), and a Western accent (Dodge City,Garden City). The latter two variants he notes as having the cot-caught merger. He also suggests, based on a single speaker in Liberal, KS) a tiny place in the Southwestern part of the state where full-on Southern English crosses the border.

      There’s a lot of variation in this part of the country, though, so it’s noriously difficult to map precise accent boundaries.

      • Thomas says:

        It’s funny, because I always thought of that area as having very little variation.

        • trawicks says:

          As a whole, that’s probably true. However, what is variable in the Southern Midlands area are important markers: whether an accent is caught-cot merged, whether the accent features “glide deletion” (i.e. “hi” become “hah”), the backness or frontness of certain vowels. Because these features are often used to mark North vs. South and East vs. West distinctions, you’ll see a number of accent distinctions that are only based on small differences. But those differences are fairly important ones.

        • Larry says:

          “…whether the accent features “glide deletion” (i.e. “hi” become “hah”)…”

          According to ANAE, the Midland only has /aɪ/ monophthongization before sonorants*, i.e., before /l/, /m/, /n/ and /r/, if it has it at all. I’m from there and I don’t even have it even in those environments.

          *Note that they prefer the term “resonants” over sonorants.

        • trawicks says:

          I consider it the dividing line between North and South. I mention glide deletion because it’s important in laying out the boundary between Northern and Southern English, particularly the “border” states of Oklahoma, Missouri and West Virginia.

        • Larry says:

          Yes, I understand. I was just saying you wouldn’t ever hear /aɪ/ monophthongization (or “glide deletion” or whatever you want to call it) in a word like hi in the Midland. You might hear it from a few people in tile or tire, but never in hi or sigh.

  2. Anna says:

    Very interesting discussion, I was just thinking about his accent the other day.

  3. boynamedsue says:

    Sounds Kenyan to me, and maybe a little Muslim around the vowels. Did you notice how he never says “Aloha”? Very suspicious….

    • trawicks says:

      Haha you joke, but given the state of American discourse, I would SERIOUSLY not be surprised if one of our insane new politicians brought this point up during an interview.

  4. boynamedsue says:

    Paglia is talking nonsense BTW, must have needed to sell an article…

  5. Mark Paris says:

    One thing that struck me was his pronunciation of “dog” in a late-night interview (Leno?). It was positively, almost exaggeratedly Southern, and not especially African American.

    • trawicks says:

      Hmm, not sure what that that’s about. Marked AAVE may have “Southern”-sounding pronunciation for “dog” (meaning it becomes a slight dipthong). There may be some (probably remote) areas in Kansas with a similar pronunciation, though I haven’t heard any. Or he might have been speaking facetiously.

      • Mark Paris says:

        As I mentioned in a comment on the previous post, I was born in NW Georgia and have spent most of my life there. I am trying to hear in my mind my (early) pronunciation of dog and the way I have heard both whites and blacks say it. I think they are pretty similar, at least in informal speech. So there might not be much difference between AAVE and some Southern white pronunciation of dog. I have thought about “dog” before and wondered why, at least in my speech, it is the only “og” word that is pronounced that way. I pronounce other “og” words (bog, cog, fog, hog, jog, log) not much differently from standard TV journalist pronunciation. My current “dog” is somewhere in between, along with my pronunciation of coffee.

        I may be reading too much into it, but I suspect Obama was using that very informal pronunciation as a way of signaling that that part of the conversation was fluff.

  6. AL says:

    Of these 3 clips, I think the 2nd one is what I typically associate with Obama. I’ve always thought that he has a unique accent which I’ve had trouble putting into a box.

    One aspect that stands out to me about his way of speaking: He sometimes has a tendency to speak the last few syllables of a sentence more quickly.

  7. trawicks says:

    @Mark,

    I haven’t seen the clip as well, but you may be right. Northern Americans often adopt Southern features when they’re joking around, for reasons I’ve never quite understood (although I’ve probably done it myself!)

    @AL,

    That’s a good point about about his intonation. Another feature of his that I didn’t mention is that he tends to use a lax vowel at the end of words like happy (i.e. the vowel in words like KIT). This is a feature of broad AAVE (and some Southern accents as well), although I’m not sure why Obama specifically does it.

  8. antar says:

    Yeah, I think it sounds Chicago; broad consonants, etc. The subtle twang seems to have increased in recent years; maybe an attempt to sound a little “black enuf” for a society that has come to worship stereotypical depictions of Black Masculinity.

  9. Sisney says:

    As a Californian with a CA accent, I don’t hear any accent at all when Mr. Obama talks. I think it could be safe to say he has a Californian-ish accent.

  10. Ben W says:

    To my ears, the “black” features in this speech are very mild. Mostly I hear them occasionally in certain words when he is speaking faster, and they disappear whenever he slows down to emphasize words. The prosody in his voice is quite distinctive but to me it sounds exactly like the way Obama speaks in other speeches; I don’t really hear anything more specifically AAVE at all.

    It’s not at all obvious to me that these mild AAVE features in his speech are a conscious decision he makes while rehearsing the speech. I often notice myself adjusting my speech towards people I’m speaking with, but this is rarely a conscious choice I make.

  11. Mark McGreevey says:

    I understand that young obama moved after law school to be a community organizer in Chicago. How did he change so quickly from a Hawaiian or Indonesian way if speaking! Most adults do not really lose their primary accents if they move as adults to another country or part of USA. Obama has been with Chicago people somehow since he was very young wherever it is that he really grew ip

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  13. Ken Sears says:

    I have noticed Obama’s chameleon-ish tendency to shift into “black” when the occasion suits, since his advent on the public radar screen. To me, it is cringingly obvious and insultingly, demeaningly fake, i.e., demeaning to his audiences… yet they don’t seem to mind it. You can draw your own conclusions. His basic accent is “white”, reflecting the world in which he grew up. Yet the man seems profoundly conflicted as to his identity. My gut sense is, he’s afflicted with that particular pathology by which, when he’s “putting on the black”, he nearly believes it himself. “Hey, maybe THIS is who I am….” It’s not just a “black” accent,by the way, it’s “black preacher” cadences, remotely MLK-ish. Which suggests how Obama would like to see himself, would like other people to see him. There is something dishonest in this man, down to the core, and this accent thing is a minor, but revolting, symptom.