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Tom Baxter

In diverging vowels, language mirrors political change

By Tom Baxter

As the Democrats gather for the second of the nation’s quadrennial tribal gatherings, students of politics might want to ponder some recent developments in the field of linguistics.

A few decades ago, experts in the language noticed a change in the way white English-speakers in the U.S. cities along the Great Lakes were pronouncing a cluster of short vowels: “bus” was beginning to sound more like “boss” and “top” like “tap.” In everyday practice the differences are often quite subtle, (examples here) but for linguists this clockwise rotation of the short-vowel sounds is a very big deal, enough for it to have its own acronym, the NCS, or Northern Cities (vowel) shift. Modern English diverged from Middle English about 500 years ago, when a similar rotation occurred in the long vowels and “shates” became “sheets.”

You will be more likely to hear the NCS in Charlotte this week than you would have in Tampa last week. William Labov, the foremost expert on the NCS, has documented both a sharp boundary between NCS speakers and their downstate neighbors across the East and Midwest, and a close correlation between these speech patterns and voting patterns in the last three presidential elections. This isn’t all that much of a surprise — the same boundaries also demarcate the regions settled by pioneers from New England and Appalachia, respectively. But it is a reminder that cultural patterns in American politics still run deep.

The larger political lesson may lie in the way such a dramatic divergence is occuring in a time of seeming homogenization. So it is also with the political conventions. There were more black and Latino faces in every frame of last week’s Republican National Convention coverage than there were four or eight years ago, and you’ll see similar efforts by Democrats this week to reach out to the groups they want in their tent. In character with the Olympics, which occur on the same schedule, women are playing a much bigger role in both conventions. A Cuban-American, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, introduced Mitt Romney to the GOP convention last week; Julian Castro, the Latino mayor of San Antonio, will give the Democrat’s keynote speech Tuesday night.

But as the images on the television screen converge into a common approximation of what America looks like, the two parties are becoming increasingly divergent in the language they use to speak to the country. Someone no doubt will come out with one of those word clouds of all the rhetoric thrown around in both conventions. If they do you can expect the two clouds to look very different. With very little room left among undecided voters, both parties will be speaking a language their base can understand.

Another lesson is that political parties, like vowels, can shift over time. The Republicans last week sounded like a party still moving to the right, and taking on a more anti-establishment tone as it does so. Rules fights like the one which caused a brief commotion last Tuesday, pitting grassroots activists against party insiders, are nothing new at Republican conventions. The insiders always have the advantage in fights like that, and they prevailed last week. But overall this seemed much more a party of outsiders than the one which took up the Georgia delegation challenge in 1988, or even the one which cheered Sarah Palin four years ago.

Conversely, the Democrats have grown so tightly wound they may ultimately have to stop using that old Will Rogers line – “I’m not a member of any organized party… I’m a Democrat” – in their speeches. This may serve to dampen the impression this week that their party also is moving, with accelerating speed, to the left. But the absence of so many elected officials who used to populate the Southern delegations will make the point clearly enough.

According to Twitter, the most widely retweeted message of the Republican National Convention was Barack Obama’s response to Clint Eastwood: “This seat’s taken.” The GOP’s convention planners can be forgiven for going along with someone’s bright idea of having Eastwood speak. Things like that are always a gamble. But scheduling that gamble at the beginning of the hour in which Romney gave his acceptance speech was an epic blunder. Even if the response to Eastwood had been more positive, it distracted the nation’s attention from the candidate at a crucial moment.

Given how preoccupied the Democrats have become with message control, we shouldn’t expect anything similar in Charlotte, though there is a “draft Betty White” movement afoot. But the Democrats, too, should note the real lesson of the empty chair: The country no longer has to wait until the speech is over, or has even begun, to begin its own conversation.

Postscript: Illinois Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth, who spoke Tuesday night, seemed to my ear the most interesting example of the NCS.  We’re all a mixture: her speech also has some overtones that seem to come from an Asian mother and a military background. But that short vowel shift is there.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.



  1. Roy Strickland September 6, 2012 10:30 am

    Shades of S.I. Hayakawa!Report

  2. Burroughston Broch September 6, 2012 9:29 pm

    Mr. Baxter, I laughed at your column more than anything in a long time! I found these bits particularly side-splitting.
    1. There is nothing new about a flat Midwest accent. I had a childhood friend from Chicago who pronounced “milk” as “malk”,  to my delight. The only valid political significance is Chicago is the center of power and control of the Obama administration – think both Obamas, Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel, etc. If you want to be part of the in-crowd, you must talk the talk.
    2. And then the Democrat rank and file from the floor behaved like your characterization of Republicans by forcing the convention leadership to reinsert the words “God” and “Jerusalem” into the platform, after they had been removed at the leadership’s instructions. How did you know that the little people would rise up and contradict their betters?
    I look forward to more humor – perhaps tomorrow after the President’s acceptance speech? Keep up the good work.Report


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