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Why How Obama Talks Is More Interesting Than How Michael Steele Tries To

Interesting moment the other night at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner when Barack Obama teased Republican National Party Chairman Michael Steele for his famous inclination towards slightly studious mouthings of hip hop slang.

"Michael Steele is in the house. Or as he would say, "in the heezy ... " ... "Whassup?!?"

Humor involves a response to the unexpected, and the irony here is that while Michael Steele's approach to speaking English is perfectly predictable of the person he is, it's Obama's that is more worthy of comment. 

Steele is: 

1) black, 

2) a locker room towel-snapping sort of personality in contrast to more buttoned-up black figures like Colin Powell, 

3) in a position of hoping that he can attract people from "the hip-hop generation" to be Republicans, 


4) 50. 

What else would we expect from that particular person but decorating his public statements now and then with "rap talk"--and just as predictably, outdated rap talk given that someone of his age and station is unlikely to have ever been a real fan of a pop style that didn't go national until he was almost finished college? 

Hence "off the hook" (apparently a little 2001 today), "bling bling" (I sense that the proper term today is the more economical "bling") and so on. 

Obama's black American cadence, which played a considerable part in making America fall in love with him, and which he utilized in teasing Steele Saturday night, may not be funny like Steele's verbal bumbling, but it's just as unexpected. 

The top age at which most people can learn a new language perfectly, with no accent, is about 17. By then, especially, a person might master the vocabulary and grammar and idioms of a language perfectly, but always have somewhat of an accent (New York is full of Eastern European immigrants who arrived at 16 or so, speaking perfect but slightly accented English). 

The black English cadence is an accent (just as the mainstream English cadence is). Yet Obama did not grow up with it. At 16 and 17 he was in Hawaii; before that he had been in Indonesia. Surely he didn't pick up the cadences of Oakland in either locale. (Maybe today, with the reign of hiphop, he might have, since "Ebonics" is increasingly a youth "dialecta franca." But in the mid-70s hiphop's worldwide breakout was years away.) 

Obama himself does not describe "learning to speak like a black American"--it was likely an unconscious process, part of coming to feel part of the culture in his late twenties as he settled in Chicago. Thus there is no claim here that Obama is a phony: people generally do not take on accents deliberately. Many of us have friends who moved to England as adults and have lived there for several years. They wind up with halfway English accents--but not on purpose. 

Or--and this is what is interesting about Obama--completely. Brits can still suss them out as Americans; we'd never think they were born in Britain. Obama's cadence, however, is more convincing than this. When he used to intone "Yes, We Can," it sounded as convincing as if Jesse Jackson said it (and Jackson's pique at Obama was likely motivated in part by knowing it). 

I knew various black people growing up who, embracing black identity late in high school or in college, started using a black English cadence like their new friends. And they always used that cadence in second-language fashion. You could tell they hadn't grown up with it, just as few of us could learn a new language and speak it with no accent whatsoever. 

Obama, at an advanced age, pulled it off better than most of us could. It's always struck me, and much more so than Michael Steele's puppy-with-big-paws slangy overzealousness (after all, this is an era of cuss words and nipples on television). 

It suggests at least that Obama is a gifted mimic. Perhaps it even correlates with the empathy he has called for in a new Supreme Court judge--which, on that note, was the occasion for more lowbrow verbiage from Steele a few days ago--"Empathize right on your behind": perhaps an idea for the Republicans' rap anthem?