Nobody abuses the Queen's English like the average American, who usually speaks in sentence fragments, happily mangles syntax and is cheerfully oblivious to the rules of grammar. And he can't speel so good, either.
Slovenly speech shouldn't hurt someone who only wants to get elected president of the United States. But two students of the way presidential candidates speak, Camelia Suleiman of Florida International University and Daniel C. O'Connell of Georgetown University, beg to differ, or at least instruct. The news for Hillary Clinton is not good.
The professors discovered that sex or what the squeamish insist on calling "gender" separates the speech of the rowdy and infamous. When they examined several hours of radio and television interviews of Bill and Hillary, they discovered that Bill inevitably "talks like a man" and Hillary is careful, perhaps subconsciously, to sound "ladylike." These findings are reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.
Even the interviewers of the power couple, no matter how hard they tri
ed to be properly and politically correct, treated the Clintons differently. "Even though Hillary Clinton is a politician herself," the researchers found, "she still follows to some extent the historic designation of women's language as the language of the non-powerful."
For example, Hillary is nearly three times more likely to sprinkle her conversation with the linguistic cringe "you know" than Bill is, lapsing into the schoolgirl hedge that diminishes the power of language. Women, the professors say, are more likely to "hedge" than men.
Hillary employs the word "so" as a means of "intensifying" what she is trying to say. The use of intensifiers, say the researchers, is more common to women than men and this is what makes "female language" powerless.
Anticipating a volley of feminist complaints, the professors concede they may not know what they're talking about. "We are comparing only two individuals ... but Bill and Hillary's language does reflect the historic power relations between men and women." The researchers studied tapes of interviews conducted over the past four years. "This is Hillary Clinton's personal style, as compared to Bill Clinton's," Prof. Suleiman tells the Web site LiveScience.
It's not fair to single out Hillary as a unique abuser of the language. She's probably better at civilizing her tongue than most. We're just not as respectful of the language as our English cousins, probably because it's their language. Nobody is as careful with his neighbor's wheelbarrow or garden rake as he is with his own.
Maggie Thatcher needed neither hedge nor intensifier to make a point, as any fan of Question Time, when the prime minister is routinely put on the griddle by Members of Parliament, could tell you. These sessions are regularly broadcast by C-SPAN, and you don't have to be conversant with the ins and outs of British politics to marvel at how language can be used as grenade or scimitar, balm or stringent.
Hillary, moreover, addresses interviewers by their first instead of last names as if she were auditioning for a job as a telephone solicitor for the policeman's ball. The researchers speculate that she might have been trying to establish chumminess, or even sympathy with faux camaraderie, taking questions about Bill's rutting, her hair, her clothes, her daughter, her growing up as a New York Yankee fan in Illinois, her faking a down-home Arkansas accent in the black churches of Harlem. Bill rarely does that, perhaps because so far no interviewer has extended the noxious habit of first-naming people he doesn't really know to a former president.
The researchers even measured whether the nation's most famous power couple pronounces all their syllables, as an educated Englishman would. The former president speaks 82 percent of his syllables, Hillary 77 percent of hers, including hedges and intensifiers.
Women in politics, the researchers say, while infusing their speech with a feminine style, can transform linguistic liabilities into a powerful language of their own. "In other words, we define social relations through language, the way we speak." Any husband trying to slip into bedroom unseen after a night on the town could tell you that much. You could ask Bill Clinton.