It’s always worth reading John McWhorter, because unlike many opinion writers, whose primary expertise seems to be that they can always manufacture an opinion (in 700 words, and on time), McWhorter, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics, actually has a useful scholarly background, a real expertise that matters in what he writes. Last Thursday he wrote a column in the Daily Beast that should have been titled, “McWhorter schools Noonan.” Instead it was called, “For a President Today, Talkin’ Down Is Speaking American.”
The background is that Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, had attacked President Obama for dropping his g’s and generally sounding too folksy, which she believes undermines the dignity of his office. Now, she never wrote this column about George W. Bush, one of the great g-droppers of all time. But fortunately when she directed her armchair linguistics toward our darker-hued president, McWhorter was there to call her out, noting that by dropping g’s, and by using some black vernacular expressions—“folks” for “people” is one example—Obama is in fact being typically American, shifting between formal and informal registers.
Obama, then, speaks a larger English than Romney – or Reagan, or Kennedy. It complements the fact that he is the first president since Martin Van Buren, who grew up speaking Dutch and broke into it when angry, to be raised in a household where more than just English was spoken. It’s stupid enough that Obama has to downplay his command of Indonesian to avoid looking like a Muslim; must we jump him for using the Black English spice kit?
To the Peggy Noonans among us who cringe when Obama talks “down”: This is a deeply informal country. Unless you’re ready to start wearing hoop skirts, stick to waltzes, frame your emails with “Dear” and “Yours Truly,” and roundly condemn all sex outside of the benefit of clergy, you must get used to presidents dropping g’s. It’s what a president of this nation in these times should do now and then.
So far, so good, and I would love to hear Noonan’s response. But McWhorter got me thinking beyond the black/white dichotomy and into the Jew/Gentile split, and even into what we might call Jew/Jewww!, the latter being the Orthodox, especially the ultra-Orthodox.
Tablet recently ran a fine piece about how Toronto Jews don’t sound Canadian—they have their own accent—but I find, as an American Jew who usually sounds American, that when I spend time around very obervant Jews, I pick up their intonations and their vocabulary. This echolalia is very common for some people: I am one of that substantial minority of people who easily slip into the speech patterns of whomever I am speaking with. And I know that I do this with ultra-Orthodox Jews because after 10 minutes with them, I am nodding and saying, “Hundred percent, hundred percent.”
Maybe you have heard this usage. This ultra-Orthodox “hundred percent,” which I have heard from Hasidim and the non-Hasidic yeshivish alike, is a general affirmation. It can be used as a verbal agreement to statements ranging from “She’s quite a looker, eh?” to “There’ll never be another rabbi like Moshe Feinstein…” Where did it come from? Some colleagues have suggested it comes straight from the Hebrew meah achuz—but most of the people I hear using the expression are more Yiddish speakers than Hebrew speakers. Is it related to the Hasidic emphasis on numerology, numbers often mattering in the way of words?
In any event, I wonder if Peggy Noonan would think that my occasional use of “hundred percent” was somehow cynical or condescending, as if I were just faking it to get in good with the Haredim. The truth, whenever we code-switch in language, is more complicated. Noonan, one of our legendarily gifted White House speechwriters, should know that. At least a little, if not a hundred percent.