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But How Does Bob Dole's Dialect Play in Peoria?

Linguistics: The Kansas senator's down-home speech sounds warm and trustworthy to the average American. But it doesn't do much for, say, well-educated Easterners.

May 13, 1996|BLAINE HARDEN | THE WASHINGTON POST

Growing up on the west Kansas plains, he was taught self-reliance by his mother because "wadnaanybodygonnadoot" for him.

During 3 1/2 decades in Congress, he's prided himself on cutting the "def'sit" and, at the same time, "gittin more s'port for aggerculter."

If he wins the presidency, after having been a loyal Republican for "minetire life," he will finally have a "drek line to the Kremlin."

The way Kansas Sen. Robert J. Dole talks--running words together, swallowing the middle syllable, steering clear of fancy-pants locution--is called a "north midlands dialect." Linguists agree that of all the regional accents in the United States, the homiest, most trustworthy and least annoying to the average American ear is that of the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

"He hasn't become 'Beltway Bob' linguistically. His speech has a kind of lean, terse quality. In musical terms, it is the opposite of baroque. It's a nice warm sound that most Americans relate to very well," says Robert Easton, a Hollywood dialect coach who has been studying Dole-speak for years and who has taught several dozen actors how to imitate the accents of American presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Richard Nixon.

The Senate majority leader has spent half of his 72 years in Congress, but linguists agree Dole's flat accent and unadorned vocabulary remain remarkably true to the way people talk in his home town of Russell, Kan.

Assumptions attached to certain regional accents have been eroded over the past half century by the universal reach of television and radio voices, but surveys find that certain linguistic caricatures abide. Southern speech still sounds indolent to many people. Northern speech still sounds rude.

This is where Dole lucks out, according to Dennis Preston, a professor of linguistics at Michigan State University and author of "Perceptual Dialectology," a study of what people think about various American dialects.

"Bob Dole is in a perfect position. Nobody is going to say he sounds like a crook. The north midlands dialect is the one with the least negative caricatures. His speech does not suggest untrustworthiness to anyone," says Preston, who is not a Republican.

"When Dole speaks, he simply sounds authentic to a lot of Americans," says John Staczek, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University (also not a Republican).

"What Dole is doing is helping people identify with his character, with a strong sense of Middle American values, whether or not he really believes that himself."

There is a political downside, however, to sounding like a John Deere salesman.

"My guess is that for African Americans and New Yorkers, this way of talking does not sell very well. For better-educated East Coast folks, it can sound pretty boondocksy," says Preston.

He adds that a voice redolent of the prairie does not necessarily warm hearts in industrial parts of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin--where Dole needs to win in November, but where the regional dialect is more sharp-edged.

As regards Dole's most noticeable rhetorical tic--his habit of referring to himself in the third person as "Bob Dole"--linguists do not presume to know precisely what the Kansas senator is up to. But they have theories.

"There is only one linguistic group I know that does this consistently," Preston says. "Urban teenage black males will refer to themselves in the third person, especially if they perceive themselves to be the toughest kids in the neighborhood. If a kid's nickname is the Phantom, he is likely to say something like, 'Boy, you are in trouble with the Phantom.' "

A radically different theory, suggested by Beatrice Santorini, an assistant professor of linguistics at Northwestern University, has Dole stealing a rhetorical trick from Julius Caesar.

"Caesar was one of the first authors to describe his exploits in the third person. Instead of saying, "I crossed the Alps to conquer Gaul,' he was always writing that 'Caesar crossed the Alps.' "

Dole himself offers a simple political reason for calling himself Bob Dole. He says he does it so voters will remember his name.

On his campaign plane recently, when asked if he has any notion of how his way of talking is selling with voters, Dole did not appear interested in the question.

"I probably won't change," he said. "I probably can't change."

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