Obama’s cadence of Zion

Official_portrait_Barack_Obama2.jpgWhen presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said during the Republican primaries that he was comfortable speaking the language of Zion, he clearly referred to the social and, to some degree, theological contexts of conservative evangelical Protestants. I’ve long sensed that Obama speaks in the cadence of Zion, one that seems familiar to any ears familiar with black churches.

Linguist John McWhorter has helped explain this sound in a wonderful brief essay for The New Republic:

Black English is a matter not just of slang, but of sentence structure and sound (why you can tell most black people’s race over the phone, which is proven in studies). Some blacks use all three; Obama is one of the many who wields mostly the sound. Listen to the way he often ends sentences on a higher pitch than, say, Tom Brokaw would, with that preacherly hang-in-the-air. Or the way he often pronounces “history” as “historih,” “ability” as “abilitih.” His rendition of the word responsibility was indicative: with a cadence typical of Black English, capped by a final “ih.” No President has ever intoned sentences in this way, because they were not black.

Contrary to the fabulistic notion that gets around here and there that Black English is an African grammar with English words, the sentence structure is basically a blend of regional British dialects that slaves heard from their masters and the indentured servants you learned about in grade school. The sound, however, is partly a legacy of the African languages the slaves spoke. Especially, the melodic quality of Black English, heightened in sermons and speeches, is a legacy of the fact that in many African languages, pitch is as important in conveying what words mean as accent. In the way he said responsibility, he was using language in a way that is warp and woof of the grammar of, for example, his father’s native language Luo.

… It is certainly part of why Obama was elected. Imagine John Kerry or even either Clinton trying to get elected intoning “Yes, we can!” What made that seem prophetic, or even plausible, from Obama was that it was couched in a Black English intonation — partly church, maybe even a dash of street (a cousin of mine likes that Obama “has a bit of the ghetto in him”). This aspect of Obama’s oratory got to as many whites as blacks. “He’s just …, he’s just, oh, he’s just …!” white Obama fans would often exclaim as the Obamenon set in, grasping at the mot juste. Many of them had basically been to their first black church service. He was just … well, black.

Barack Obama’s portrait is from Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Jerry

    One of the fun aspects of the Obama family tree is that they could occupy many seats at the UN.

    The president’s elderly stepgrandmother brought him an oxtail fly whisk, a mark of power at home in Kenya. Cousins journeyed from the South Carolina town where the first lady’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery, while the rabbi in the family came from the synagogue where he had been commemorating Martin Luther King’s Birthday. The president and first lady’s siblings were there, too, of course: his Indonesian-American half-sister, who brought her Chinese-Canadian husband, and her brother, a black man with a white wife…

    …Yet the first lady’s family, the supposed South Side traditionalists, includes several members who literally or figuratively ventured far from home. Nomenee Robinson was an early participant in the Peace Corps, serving in India for two years; later, he moved to Nigeria, where he met his wife; the couple now live in Chicago. Capers Funnye Jr., a cousin of Mrs. Obama’s and a rabbi, was brought up in the black church, he said, but as a young man, he felt a calling to Judaism he could not ignore.


  • Bill

    Or the way he often pronounces “history” as “historih,” “ability” as “abilitih.” His rendition of the word responsibility was indicative: with a cadence typical of Black English, capped by a final “ih.

    Hhmmm, doesn’t sound all that different from the way that Jimmy Carter would have pronounced any of those words.

  • Brian L

    With all the previous fuss over Bush’s perceived religiosity, or the concerns about theocrat Huckabee, I find it ironic that – with his prophetic preaching oratory, reminders of inherited history, exhortations to sacred values, and delivery of duties, challenges and responsibilities – Democrat Obama being praised as our first “Pastor in Chief.”

    Maybe it is just being “black.” But I’ve known many African-Americans with distinctive speaking styles and none of them have engendered the kind of spiritual, transcendent experience of the Obama follower.

  • Carl

    The weird thing is that Obama grew up in Hawaii, but he has no Hawaiian accent. Most mainlanders aren’t aware of the Hawaiian accent, but it exists and it’s quite distinctive. If he had it, they’d mock him worse than Sarah Palin. Instead Obama chose to pick up the Chicago black accent later in life, which seems to have served him well.

  • Dan Berger

    doesn’t sound all that different from the way that Jimmy Carter would have pronounced any of those words.

    Bill, if you read the article you will find that McWhorter says that the distinctive Southern white accents come from whites living cheek-by-jowl with black people, both before and after emancipation.

  • Matt Jamison

    McWhorter’s reasoning can be hard to follow. He says that southern whites borrow their accent from their black neighbors, but then implies that John Edwards, a native southerner, cannot sound convincingly black.

    Certainly both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton borrowed preacherly cadences and scriptural references in order to appropriate a tone of eloquence. I think most of this is a tribute to Martin Luther King; just as some Northeastern politicians borrow a Massachusetts accent in order to sound Kennedyeque.