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.

Barack 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?

There's been a temptation to trace it back to a single origin. But from the beginning, African American speech probably had a lot of variation. And over the last hundred years, it has become even more divergent from Southern speech. We have recordings of African Americans who were born around 1910 — when you listen to their speech samples, they sounded a lot more like the white people in their own regions than African Americans often do today.

What's the reason behind that change?

People in urban areas today are relatively segregated, and their lives tend to be wrapped up in their communities. That makes cities a fertile ground for different speech patterns to develop. There are certain characteristics that do seem to show up in the African American vernacular from Los Angeles to Boston. For example, there's the habitual "be" — as in, "my ears be itching" — or the dropping of the verb — as in, "she nice." But as white linguists, for a long time we got a little bit caught up in this exotic "other" and didn't realize how distinct some of the varieties actually are.

Why do some immigrant groups seem to shed all traces of dialect almost immediately, while others, like Eastern European Jews, hold onto little idiosyncrasies for a few generations?

Some of it has to do with social isolation. That's one reason some groups can't always make that one-generation adjustment. But some of it is also speaker agency — how you choose to define yourself. I was born around World War II. My parents were working-class German immigrants, and they spoke to me in German. But I never spoke German to my own kids. The only German words they know are curse words and things we say to our pets.

You've been trying to get rid of some of the stigma around dialect.

Yes, my colleagues and I have been working on something called the North Carolina Language and Life Project. We're trying to help people understand that language is an essential part of our culture. It's part of a very primitive system, and people have deep-seated  ideas about it — it comes from the same source that defines our religion, our morality, and so forth.

For the past three years, we've had a booth at the state fair where people can listen to different speech patterns and play around with interactive tools. And we have a curriculum we've developed for eighth grade social studies. For one week, kids learn about different linguistic legacies from the Outer Banks to the Smoky Mountains. How can you really understand history without learning how groups like Native Americans and Spanish speakers have influenced the language?

There are romantic notions about little hollows in the Appalachians where people still speak Shakespearean English. How much truth is there to that?

There are some older forms that are retained in isolated areas. You'll find the same thing if you take a boat to Tangier Island or Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay, or some of the Outer Banks communities. In reality, all languages change — if a language isn't changing, it's dead. But people like to focus on the parts of the language that haven't changed. It's a romantic myth, to a large extent. But it happens to be a romantic myth that serves the people well.