Obama talking black

When my children used to live at home and they heard me talking on the phone, they said they could tell immediately, even when they were little, whether the person at the other end of the line was of Sri Lankan origin or not, even though I was talking in English. They said they could tell from my choice of words and the inflections in my voice even though I was not aware of making any changes in my speech patterns.

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who belongs to a minority culture. Such people live in two worlds. Since we are well aware that the majority culture is the norm, we need to learn it so that we can navigate it. It is basically a survival skill. At the same time, we retain our own culture and revert to it when we can, so we end up using elements of the majority or minority culture depending on whom we are with. And we do this without even thinking, switching easily from one to another. There is nothing weird or sinister about it.

People in the majority culture, who use only one mode all the time, tend to be surprised by this whenever they stumble upon a situation where they happen to be in the minority and find the people whom they know who spoke in their circle in one way, now seem to be speaking differently.

This is why it is always amusing when political opponents of president Obama get so excited whenever they ‘discover’ a video of president Obama talking to black audiences, and make a fuss about the fact that he is ‘talking black’, as if that were some sort of code that he is a secret anti-white militant.

Get a grip, folks. All it shows is that you have no idea how minority cultures operate.

The Daily Show comments on the latest episode of this kind of faux outrage by Fox News.

(This clip appeared on October 3, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)


  1. fastlane says

    And rightwingers do the same thing in front of evangelical audiences. It’s the same thing, just different demographics. Of course, when they do it, it’s different becuase:

    1) ____
    2) _____

    Fill in the blanks. 😉

  2. Anonymouse says

    Mano, what you describe is called “Code Switching” by linguists. You’re absolutely right on target with this; people with minority dialects/languages known not only the majority dialect/language, but their own, as well.

  3. Nepenthe says

    Gods, I find code-switching fascinating. I tend to eavesdrop just so that I can observe it. I want to stop groups of Latin@ teenagers on the street and say “Please, please tell me how you decide when to use English words and when to use Spanish.” etc. I have the good sense not to do this.

    I know that I must code switch at least a little, but my dialect is so close to American teevee English, right down to accent, that I’ve never noticed it and neither has anyone else.

  4. Jared A says

    Yeah, even as a “majority white person”, I experience the same thing in my own speech (mountain west to Ohioan midwest to midatlantic east coast to even mild Appalachian), though doubtless the shift is much more subtle than what Mano experiences. You would have to be extremely unthoughtful or intentionally dishonest to find anything remarkable here (and with conservative pundits, you get the whole gamut!). Or, I should say there’s nothing remarkable beyond an academic sense–because it is a pretty cool phenomenon!

    I believe that practically anyone who has to regularly go outside a very limited comfort zone will do this automatically. We live in a giant country with a huge number of distinct regional idiosyncrasies and dialects. I think it’s exciting when we get to see how they interact and evolve.

  5. AsqJames says

    Pretty sure we all use different styles of language in different situations (at work, down the pub, first meeting with prospective parents-in-law, in front of children, in bed with a lover, etc), as well as mirroring (both verbal and non-verbal) people with different accents, speech styles, etc which I understand is partly a subconscious attempt to communicate more clearly/persuasively.

    Is “code-switching” a more substantial and therefore noticeable form of these natural human traits, a different category of behaviour entirely, or a mixture of the two?

  6. Nepenthe says

    I guess it’s only technically code-switching when the switch happens in the same conversation/communication.

  7. Anonymouse says

    Code Switching is changing the way you normally speak in different situations. The most noticeable in the USA is an African-American person who speaks Standard American English at work but BV at home, but can also include teens using “teen-speak” with each other but Standard American English with their parents/teachers/grandparents.

    Ah, from wikipedia: “code-switching is sometimes used to refer to switching among dialects, styles or registers, such as that practiced by speakers of African American Vernacular English as they move from less formal to more formal settings.[10]”

  8. Anonymouse says

    Sarah Palin adopted a North Dakota accent inexplicably when she wanted/wants to be perceived as the common man. Why she takes on an accent of a sparsely-populated state is a mystery. The conservatives lost their minds when anyone brought that up in 2008, but now apparently it’s “a thing” when the POTUS uses a dialect common to vast parts of the country.

  9. Lofty says

    I often find myself mimicking the accent of others, especially talking to people for whom English is a second language. Especially unwanted telemarketers! I suspect it’s actually unhelpful but I can’t stop myself…

  10. says

    As someone who was raised in a bilingual home (Portuguese & English), I was switching back and forth all the time, depending on whether I was talking to sibs or grandparents. I no longer have much occasion to speak in Portuguese, but there are still times when I find myself thinking/mumbling in my first language. There’s always a subtle shift in voice and emphasis when I do that. It’s just natural. And sometimes the effects are amusingly strange.

  11. callitrichid says

    I would call this style-shifting mores than code-switching. Apparently some cultural studies have applied the term more broadly than intended, but there are specific neural mechanisms involved in true code-switching that would not be activated in style-shifting.

  12. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    I’ve never understood the shrieks of indignation about “talking black” because almost everyone I know switches conversational modes depending on who they are talking to.

    Sitting in the cube farm at any multinational company, you can almost always tell when someone is talking to family or a co-worker from the same area because of the accent shift in their English.

    I pick up accents easily and without thinking about it, so I could come out of a long meeting with co-workers speaking Rajlish or Dunglish or Spanglish and not even know it.

  13. Mano Singham says

    I do that too. Some with me pointed out that when I had been talking to a cashier at a store who was a non-native speaker of English, I had been speaking in slightly ‘broken English’ to him using similar formulations as the cashier. I had no idea that I was doing that. Why was I unconsciously speaking that way? I’m not sure. It could be that I thought that he would understand me better. Or it may be that I was trying to make him more at at ease. All I know is that it was done quite unconsciously.

  14. Jared A says

    I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s hilarious when you point it out. Thanks for sharing!

  15. says

    Actually, all the indignation is, is a way to label Obama as “other”. Just make him seem foreign to the vast majority of right wing Republican sheep they expect to vote for Mitt, that’s all they need.

  16. Tracey says

    As someone for whom English is a second language, I found Palin’s accent off-putting and hard to understand. Instead of feeling admiration for her, I found it just another indicator that Palin didn’t share my values and didn’t speak for me.

  17. Tracey says

    It’s a way to Other, and especially useful to his detractors because BV is seen as a “lesser” dialect in the United States.

  18. Tracey says

    The USA tends to be funny about other languages; most of the population speaks English-only and in my experience, they feel threatened when they hear someone speak another language. In my state, one of the counties is demanding a special referendum to declare English the county’s official language, even though the county itself is 98% caucasian and the biggest non English-only speaking minority is only 1/2 of 1%.

  19. callitrichid says

    Admittedly, I am not a linguist, but I am somewhat familiar with studies of the neural mechanisms underlying code-switching. It may be that neural linguists and cultural linguists define code-switching differently, or that there are sub-categories in code switching depending on your sub-field.

    Studies of the neural underpinnings of code-switching tend to follow the definitions by Heller (1988) or Myers-Scotton (1993), for example, who define code-switching as, “the use of more than one language in the course of a single communicative episode,” and “the use of two or more languages in the same conversation,” respectively.

    In mechanistic studies, care is taken to distinguish between bilingual code-switchers and bilingual non-code-switchers. Those who speak e.g., spanish only to spanish-speaking friends and english only to english-speaking friends are grouped as bilingual non-code-switchers, and those who interject spanish words into english conversations and vice-versa are grouped as bilingual code-switchers. If we were to treat dialect like language, then the type of conversation referred to in the OP would be grouped as bilingual non-code-switching.

  20. Kim says

    I would do that also with some former coworkers who were from mainland China and Taiwan. It was more making sure I didn’t use slang or ‘casual’ words and phrases. Making sure I used the traditional or formal ones. And I would tend to use more people’s names than he, she, they so they would be more clear on who I was talking about. The past/present/future tense was also a challenge.

  21. Skip White says

    I’m from south-central Pennsylvania, between Harrisburg and the so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch Country”. I find myself occasionally code-switching between a more standardized American English and the local accent and vocabulary. I tend to use the latter among family and friends, and the former around most other people, especially in a formal or professional setting.

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