Style-Shifting in President Obama’s speeches
President Obama is known to shift style during his speeches through his tenure. The style-shift of the President Obama speech can denoted to the audience. As presented in the research, President Obama does deliberately use the African America Vernacular English variant in the speech while speaking to the Black audience. However the African America Vernacular English variants can also be sighted in his speech in front of the non-black audience which can denote to his speaking style. One can also deduce that President Obama make style-shift to affiliate himself with the audience keeping his individual identity intact. At the same time, he chooses a certain style-shift in order for the audience to understand and relate to his speech.
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For a long time, the concept of “style” adopted by a person in speech has been a topic of debate among the sociolinguistics. Researches have tried to pinpoint exactly what is the constitution of style and why do people use a specific style in a gathering. “Style” has many meaning for the sociolinguistics. For some, it means the choice of speech an individual makes when communicating with other. However, everyone is agreed on the point that an individual changes his/her speaking style based on the audience and the topic under discussion. In this context, one can also define “style” as a code chosen for a specific discussion. The code includes the tone of an individual, the word chosen and the structure of the sentences etc. (Bell, p.145-147)
However, style is also dependent on the dialect of the speaker. It can be regiolect or sociolect. The idea is that every person speaks in a different style which is based on who they are and where they belong from. However, within in specific dialectal style, a speaker can chose different style to speak based on the audience, environment and topic etc. This shows the complexity of the concept behind “style.” On the other hand, there is another concept known as “style shifting” which is closely related to style. For example when a speaker starts to talk in the local language, he/she is trying to establish closeness with the audience. (Bell, p.145-147)
In United States, the style-shift in President Obama’s speeches is under great debates. People have generally noticed that there is noticeable different in the pronunciation of President Obama in different speeches. The variation in the pronunciation is a debate-topic between both analysts and academics. It has been interpreted as the indexical of African America Vernacular English. It can be said that President Obama has the ability to shift elegantly and comfortably from standard American English (white) to “black language.” This paper evaluates the hypothesis raised publicly and academically for Obama’s speech i.e. president engages in style shifting. The following sections will describe the methods and used for evaluating the hypothesis. Furthermore, the paper will also discuss the result and discuss the outcomes in a separate section.
In order to evaluate the style shifting in Obama’s speech, the paper will use four speeches of President Obama between January 2008 and September 2011. The speeches which will be evaluated are: Congressional Black Caucus Foundation which will be referred as CBC; speech at Hampton University which will be referred as Hampton University; King’s Church speech and A More Perfect Union. The speeches chosen for the analysis cover the same topic therefore to make sure that number of external factor affecting the speech are minimized while making “audience” as the only governing factor of the speeches. The number of speeches for analysis is kept four as to keep the limited scope of the paper in mind. As the purpose of the paper is to identify the possible linguistic features used by President Obama therefore there are terms used throughout the paper: “AAVE” which denotes to the ethnolect called African America Vernacular English and “GAm which denotes to General (standard) English” which is non-ethically marked variant of American English. (Detert, Rasmussen and Kristensen, p.7)
The first step in to start the analysis of the fours speeches to find a result for the hypothesis. This includes analyzing and marking the speech for the phonetic variables which can reveal variables that can be identified as indexical of African American Vernacular English. For the purpose, a computer software known as ELAN is used. ELAN is sound processing software. It helps in marking utterances in a speech and annotating the utterances with different values. However the system is not able to detect the phonetic differences in the speech. Therefore the phonetic difference will be evaluated by the listeners. (Detert, Rasmussen and Kristensen, p.7)
The ELAN software has been use to mark and annotate all the variables in the question (see Appendix A). Each variable has been given a value. The variables have also been marked within the categories i.e. “General American English” or “African America Vernacular English”. For example, if there is an annotation with an (ING) variable in the speech, the categorical annotation marks the annotation as either GAm or African America Vernacular English. The marks give us the ratio that helps distinguish between the two categories. The ratios will give us a statistical view of the number of occurrences of the variables in the speech. Furthermore, the paper also investigates the vowel used in the speech in a limited scope. (Detert, Rasmussen and Kristensen, p.8)
The research is focused on finding whether the variants indexical of African America Vernacular English is due to natural flow or is triggered intentionally. The aim was to determine whether there is a relative progression in the use of African America Vernacular English variants in the speeches as it would reject the hypothesis i.e. to use African America Vernacular English for achieving strategic goals by President Obama. To analyze the fractures, each speech was divided into a ten minute intervals. Unfortunately the technique did not provide an accurate evidence of the relative progression i.e. highlighting the (HAPPY) tokens by retrieving only the orthographic –y words did not draw any significant progression in variants. Furthermore, the retrieval of (HAPPY) vowels at the end of an utterance which is followed by a short pause did not draw an significant result too. Despite the fact that each speech and each ten minute interval has been closely analyzed for number of possibilities, the author could not find any relative progression of the use of African America Vernacular English in the speeches. Therefore the technique will not be pursued any further.
Any other important factor that influences the use of variants indexical of African America Vernacular English is the topic of the speech. In order to find out the influence of the topic on the ratio of the African America Vernacular English to Gam variants, the research divided the dataset into five different topics. The five categories in which the topics were divided are: African Americans; references from Bible; The United States of America; personal thoughts and experience of President Obama and the category according to the theme of the speech.
It is easy to evaluate and analyze the hypothesis when the speech has the same topic of discussion while the audience is different. One can easily point out whether a topic can trigger the use of variants of the two variations in question. It is also the aim of the analysis to connect the overall findings of different to help make it possible the retrieval of the two variants based on the topic and the evaluation of whether certain topics cause the use of high or lower number of variants indexical of African America Vernacular English. Unfortunately, the evaluation reveals that no topic provoked any significant use of variants indexical of African America Vernacular English. Just like the previous retrieval of the (HAPPY) vowels in orthographic revealed a higher number of African America Vernacular English variants, analyzing (HAPPY) vowels for the topics also revealed higher number of African America Vernacular English variants. This analysis did not show any significant results.
In the end, it can be said that for the present research the topics were divided very broadly. However in future, detailed division of the topics can produce better results. However the hypothesis of the use of higher frequency of African America Vernacular English variants can be impacted by the topic of the speech will not be pursued further. In the following section, the author will present the number of the analysis and the ratios provided for the results.
This section presents the yields on the evaluation of the four speeches of President Obama. The analysis done will be to answer the question whether Obama shift style based on the audience and whether Obama uses the African America Vernacular English style in front of the Black audience or not. In the discussion, we will try to connect the internal finding of the speeches with the external context. It is said that the speech is greatly influenced by the social context of the speaker or the speech. Therefore for the evaluation the audience of the speech in taken into consideration and President Obama’s personal background can also help in providing insight into whether Obama uses African America Vernacular English variants when delivering speech in front of the African Americans. (Bell, p.141)
If one tries to evaluated President Obama’s speech against the list of unique phonological African America Vernacular English characteristic, one can find out that the above analysis will not be able to provide proof to term Obama’s speech style an African American Vernacular English. By using a list of phonological African America Vernacular English characteristic to measure Obama’s speech will ignore the fact that style construction is a process of bricolage. (Eckert, p.4) The idea is to construct and give a unique and distinct identity of an individual through the speech while at the same time the speech should also be able to relate to the audience. One can understand Obama’s speech style and style shift, if one understands that style is formed by clustering linguistics with a social meaning. Therefore in Obama’s speech, the author has detected multiple linguistic variants which can be associated with African America Vernacular English. (Bell, 141)
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However it can also be said that the analysis noticed that the variants can also be associated with the Southern White vascular English (SWVE). However it should be not that style can be defined as the way an individual speaker speaks in relation to the audience. Therefore one can safely assume that it would be irrelevant and meaningless for President Obama to apply style shift toward Southern White vascular English in the context of the four speeches. As mentioned before, style of the speech has the potential to portray many social meaning using it indexical field. It would be inaccurate to consider President Obama use Southern White vascular English in the context of four speeches having a dominant black audience as it should be clear to the President Obama that the audience does not share the social meanings presented by the Southern White vascular English variants. In short it can be said that the linguistic characteristic of African America Vernacular English are different from indexical fields of Southern White vascular English. Therefore there is no reason to believe that President Obama employed deliberately the use of Southern White vascular English variants in the four speeches.
Now, we shall discuss the combination of the (HAPPY) variable and (ING) variable noticed in the speeches in the social context. The audience of the four Obama speeches was mostly back therefore one can place the variants in the indexical cluster of African America Vernacular English rather than AWVE. When the three speeches in front of the black audience were evaluated, the –in variants in gerunds showed similar ratios i.e. 22%, 30.5% and 38.5%. However, the speech delivered by President Obama in front of the mixed audience did not show any –in variant. There was a significant use of the (ING) variable followed by an alveolar stop ([t] and [d]) in the three speeches delivered in front of the black audience i.e. 38.5%, 26.3% and 75%. Again the speech delivered in front of the mixed audience shows interestingly result. There were nine moments through the speech where –in variant could have been used however the (ING) variants is used instead and has a 100% occurrence. The finding proves that President Obama is aware not to speak in a non-ethically marked speech in the mixed audience. On the other hand, the reason for the absence of the –in variant can be due to a more formal setting. The speech was given as a response to the pressure of President Obama and his candidacy. In such situation, the President has to make a very clear and precise statement as not to draw any controversial messages out of the speech.
Furthermore, the research has also shown the continuous lowering of the (HAPPY) vowel in the four speeches. King’s Church speech (19.7%) and Hampton University Speech (29.1%) show high frequency in low usage of the (HAPPY) vowel while the Perfect Union (17.9%) and CBC speech (4.2%) show low frequency. After noticing the occurrence of the lowered (HAPPY vowel), one has to look for the syntactic context of the orthographic –y words. The ratio has the same pattern for the four speeches as for the (HAPPY) vowel. The percentage of the ratio for Hampton University and King’s Church speech was 55.1% and 60.4% respectively while ratio for CBC and Perfect Union Speech was 26.8%.
Analysis was also on orthographic –y words followed by a consonant which showed a relative distribution. The King’s Church speech and Hampton University Speech show high percentage distribution the –y words followed by consonant i.e. 40% and 45.6% respectively while the Perfect Union speech show 8.1% of distribution. Interestingly, the CBC speech did not show any lowering of the (HAPPY) vowel under the circumstance. The overall result of the analysis of the (HAPPY) vowel shows that king’s church speech and Hampton University speech had higher number of black audience which could be related to the lowering of the (HAPPY) vowel. President Obama lowers the (HAPPY) vowel in his speech in the black audience. Nevertheless the pattern is also detected in the speech of President Obama in front of the non-black audience. Therefore one can deduce that this shift style in the President speech can be denote to his natural style of speaking.
In short, the paper would point out that the small dataset and two variables used in the research cannot be able to deduce the style shift in the President Obama speech properly. One cannot prove that Obama uses style shift toward African America Vernacular English deliberately or unintentionally. However, the small dataset that was used in the research shows relevance towards the use of African America Vernacular English which can be used to assume that it is Obama’s natural way of speaking. One is also able to deduce the President Obama style shift will not be a basilectal style. But one can say that President Obama speech style can be taken as the most prestigious standard for African America Vernacular English. But one has to evaluate more speeches in the future to come to a more substantial conclusion.
However, the speeches have shown different ratios of the variants indexical of African America Vernacular English and Gam. The King’s Church speech and the Hampton University Speech was delivered in front of the black audience show a high percentage of the African America Vernacular English variants while the Perfect Union speech was delivered in front a mixed audience showed lower percentage as compared to the other two speeches. But the research also detected African America Vernacular English variants in the Perfect Union speech. However the results of the CBC speech were striking and different. Therefore one is safe to say that the research did detect a difference in the speeches in front of the black and mixed audience which points out that President Obama deliberately use specific variants in the speech.
There are multiple feature and characteristics that impact the way an individual speak. In short, each individual has their own style of speaking. Furthermore, during conversations many individual deliberately and unintentionally style shift in their speech depending on the audience. In United States, the style shift of President Obama is under great debate. One can safely say that the President knows the talent of comfortably shift style during his speeches. His speech style depends greatly on the topic of the speech, audience, and his own speaking style. In the research, the author evaluated four speeches of President Obama to find out whether he style shift during the speech in front of the black audience or not. The research was able to propose based on four speeches that President Obama does use the African America Vernacular English variant deliberately in front of the black audience. However there was also high percentage of African America Vernacular English variants use in front of the non-black audience which can denote to the fact that President Black himself in black. Therefore the African America Vernacular English variant is part of his speaking style.
Bell, A. (1984). Style as Audience Design.
Detert, A. C., Rasmussen, D. S., & Kristensen, K. R. (2013). Barack Obama and the [blæk kÉ™ËˆmjuËnÉ™tÉ›:]-A study of style-shifting. Diss.
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Eckert, P. (2008). Variation and the Indexical Field. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 12(4) , 453-476.
Fisk, J. (1982). Introduction to Communication Studies. London: Routledge.
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