an examination of the often mis-understood "conservative southernspeak" and it's imbedded audial semiotics
 - written by: Mark Allen, October, 2004


    I've been watching the presidential debates avidly this year. The first debate had Kerry sticking to his facts and Bush kind of doing OK but then failing all over the place during the second half. The second one had Bush coming back stronger (duh!) and Kerry sticking to the same routine and also getting a little brainy. All through it, a lot of my friends (mostly Bush-haters) were always pointing out, first and foremost, certain verbal and personality quirks that George W. Bush possesses in public. Every time I hear someone laughingly talk about how Bush is a "moron" in front of a camera, I'm kind of like... I dunno... don't they realize every time Bush says "internets" on national TV (like he did in the second debate) without flinching that his support base creams their jeans? No I mean really cream their jeans and feel like its the very word of God?
    These subtle verbal red flags have neutron bomb powers within their respective zones, and act as decoys for those un-hip to their semiotics, which signify unspoken rules. Bush saying "I've been hearing rumors on the internets..." or bobbing his head every which way in confusion during press conferences sends a POWERFUL message to his base supporters. In their eyes it says that Bush is a very real person, a simple man, with good, homespun values. He's lost in the "Hollyweird" world of media politics, even perhaps a little worn from it... but he's gonna keep trudging on despite how foolish he may look because "those people's" rules are irrelevant to the big picture. It's kind of an underdog thing like in a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" way but with more limos.
    When Bush said "internets" there was a pause before he said it, as if he was actually having to collect his thoughts to be able to pronounce it correctly (a lie - he knows it by heart) and then the word was delivered slightly slow, and pronounced with a subtle up-turn in pitch, like at the end of a question, as if he was actually asking those listening if they he was pronouncing it correctly. Every Bush supporter tuned in to those debates screamed with ecstasy and maybe passed out with sheer delight like those clips from the audience at the Ed Sullivan Show for The Beatles. It's true.
    I grew up in Southern Baptist circles in Dallas, Texas for most of my formative years. Many of the adults I was around (at church mainly - duh) exhibited these characteristics. It's all an act, but it's a social grace that is expected within the clan. They pronounce certain words with a feigned apprehension and a touch of phony ignorance. These are words that represent NEW objects, places, technologies or social concepts that have not been fully integrated into traditional society for at least a couple of decades, but are nevertheless obviously very popular in the society at large, and that the speaker is aware of. It's a romantic unfamiliarity communicated with verbal cues. It's feigned ignorance that moves one upwards in those particular social circles. Weirdly, it's mostly the men who do it. Southern christian women can get away with saying new fangled words representing things not fully accepted by family values-preaching subcultures. They can just blurb out, without pause, "new hat" or "microwave" or "aloe vera" without pause. Women can get away with it because the traditional rules of femininity within their realms gives a green light to becoming familiar with new things quickly, and even talking about them enthusiastically. But for a man in those circles to say a word like "internet" with brisk ease, and no pause to collect his thoughts, is to seal the doom of his reputation amongst his peers.
    Remember how everyone was mocking that Republican publicity campaign to change the words "french fries" to "freedom fries" in response to France's refusal to support the U.S. position on Iraq during 2003? Everyone was all "Haw! Haw! Can you believe the stupidity!" and loudly and proudly pointing out how truly laughable the whole thing was because the actual food came from Belgium and really had nothing to do with France, and the word "french fries" was just developed over time due to complex linguistic paths throughout American history. A correct rebuttal, but a total misfire. These people were impenetrable to that accusation. To counter-attack with such bookish brainy-ness was to only strengthen the original plan. In fact, whether they knew it at the time or not, upon learning this fact, it no doubt made their resolve that much stronger, and their proud smiles that much wider. To be familiar with how french fries got their name, or that they were invented in Belgium, would be very bad. To be unfamiliar with culinary history would be very good. My bet is that many of them knew all along.
    Remember the first time you heard "shock and awe" uttered from a Republican's totally serious, without-irony face on television? Remember how you instantly understood what they were trying to convey, but you were thrilled and delightfully "baffled" at how stupid-sounding and clueless and parody-proof the whole grouping of words was? Sure did sound stupid didn't it?
    Not that they're plotting and scheming... far from it. These thought processes are automatic. Laugh at Bush all you want, but don't misinterpret his verbal flubs as mistakes. They're affects. Trust me.

Copyright Mark Allen - 2004
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