When Presidents Say 'Y'all': The Strange Story of Dialects in America

From Appalachian hollows to urban neighborhoods, the ways people speak can bring them together or cause social isolation. A language expert explains why.

obama-chili.jpgBarack Obama gets colloquial at a neighborhood restaurant on January 10, 2009 (Reuters)

On a cold Saturday afternoon a week before Barack Obama's first inauguration, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty took the president-elect out for a half-smoke sausage at Ben's Chili Bowl. The restaurant is a landmark in a historic black neighborhood. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis ate there; Bill Cosby still does. After Martin Luther King's assassination, Ben's got permission to stay open after curfew, serving chili to black activists and police officers as the streets burned around them.

During his visit, Obama held babies and posed for pictures, but he also seemed determined to fit in with the local scene. He sauntered toward the counter, asking for "cheddah" cheese, and addressed the staff colloquially — "Y'all have some Pepto-Bismol?" And when the cashier tried to give him change, he shot back, "Naah, we straight."

There's a YouTube video of all of this, and language scholars have watched it again and again. "You can hear how he uses features of the African American vernacular that he wouldn't use while giving a political speech," says Walt Wolfram, a dialect expert and professor at North Carolina State University. I talked to Wolfram about why Americans speak the way they do, and what makes us celebrate or stigmatize the differences.

wolfram.jpgWhat exactly is a dialect? In America, we don't have an official "high" version of our language the way Germans and Italians do, so how do we decide who speaks standard English and who doesn't?

Here in America, your speech is usually considered standard if it doesn't call attention to itself — if you don't use certain verb forms or certain kinds of plurals and so forth. As academics, we try to use "dialect" as a neutral term by saying that everyone speaks a dialect. But society doesn't quite see it that way. The word has taken on negative connotations.

A lot of politicians use dialect to their advantage.

Sure. We've looked at YouTube videos of President Obama in corner shops and so forth, and you can hear him doing just that. Or you can watch Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic convention. When he goes off script, he starts using southernisms — dropping his "g"s and even using "liketa." That promotes a certain solidarity. It says, "I'm the same as you guys. I'm not above you."

As linguists, we distinguish between "covert prestige" and "overt prestige." For Obama and Clinton, shifting into dialect gives them a certain "covert prestige." It works for them because everyone knows they're very bright guys to begin with. So when they do it, it has a different function than it might for other people.

How far back does Southern American English go? Did Thomas Jefferson sound anything like Bill Clinton?

Actually, it was really after the Civil War that Southern speech started to develop. There was some of it present beforehand. But after the war, the North and South had a lot less to do with each other. That's when iconic phrases like "y'all" started to really take off. Even the vowel sounds became more embellished — saying "tahm" for "time" or "sayed" for "said." Those little vowel differences are the real indicators of Southern speech.

What about African American speech? Did it originally come out of the South?

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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