A boost at the polls from jōō'lə-rē?
October 10, 2008 9:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for historical examples of shibboleths used in electoral politics. Got any examples?

We've beaten to death the nōō'klē-ər/nōō'kyə-lər distinction here (and elsewhere!) -- and most folks seem to accept the idea that there are social implications/connations about the choice of variant used (though there is disagreement about whether adoption of one pronunciation or the other is a calculated political tactic by any given candidate).

I'm curious about other historical instances where a particular word's pronunciation played the role of a shibboleth, particularly in electoral politics. Bonus points for non-English and non-USA examples!
posted by dkg to Society & Culture (6 answers total)
Article here about at least a couple of writers at the National Review expressing distaste for Obama's pronunciation of Pakistan pock-i-stahn (eg, correctly) as opposed to the more usual pack-i-stan, and similarly approving of Sarah Palin's "eye-rack."
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:16 PM on October 10, 2008

Does "Democrat Party" count?
posted by lemuria at 10:41 PM on October 10, 2008

Best answer: Obama's pronunciation of Pakistan pock-i-stahn (eg, correctly)

I'm annoyed by it for the same reason. It's something that alienates people (and I should know, I used to be a pathological "correcter" before I got descriptivist fever). The Columbia Encyclopedia lists păk'ĭstăn', päkĭstän' in that order. The latter is certainly the most common UK form, with the emphasis on the last syllable, and closest to the Urdu pronunciation [ogg] if Wikipedia is correct. Both of the pronunciation files at Dictionary.com (Random House & American Heritage) have the common American pronunciation with the short a and emphasis on the first syllable.

Saying that the Pakistanis say "pock-i-stahn" is of no consequence. What if he were up there on the podium saying "frahnce" or "rossiya" and its capital "moskwa"? Or God forbid, "doychlahnd", which some Americans probably think is the Nazi name (or rarely but almost understandably, Holland)? We have English pronunciations (and even different words) for all those places. I don't think it becomes a politician to go about making voters feel you know better than they do.

Jeanne Moos had a piece on this. I guess there's something to be said for pleasing the Pakistani-American vote!

Palin certainly made a big deal out of getting the right gutturals when she says "Ahmedinejad", but that's a classic case of overcorrection (as is the stumbling over Medvedev). OK, it's not as bad as the "Bay-zhing" oddity popular in TV news. But it is calling attention to itself for being knowledgeable enough to say that oh-so-complicated name. She needed to pass that test -- even though eight years or so ago one George W. got away with saying he'd met "that general over in Pakistan". Of course, she managed to flub the name of an American general....

Not to Palinicize this thread. Actual examples (and we're talking literal shibboleths, I take it, and not various metaphorical dog whistles)?

Well, the elder Bush attracted some attention for saying Saddam (Hussein) to rhyme with "Adam". Most newsies would say suh-DAHM, itself not perfectly correct. Some Arab speakers felt that Bush's choice was deliberately insulting as it made the name sound like something rude. And of course there is the constant EYE-ran and EYE-rack. (Of course, I'll never forget the car at my high school during the hostage crisis with the painted slogan IATOLA SUCKS.... hey, it sounds right ...)

And LBJ went his entire career saying vee-et-NAMM, with a really nasal A. Frankly, I think up till the modern media era people just had no exposure to the native "correct" pronunciation. Today, we especially want to be kind to certain countries for friendship or apologetic reasons, but we haven't changed the rules for the old guard countries at the same time. That leaves a dangerous tightrope of inconsistency. "Cote d'Ivoire" or "Ivory Coast"? "Timor Leste" or "East Timor"? OK, but who ever says "braSEAL"? Does the lack of "Cooba" mean a lack of respect? There was certainly an era (post-Nixon-goes-to-China) before "Taiwan" became standard; I remember it being called "also known as Taiwan" before it became "formerly known as the Republic of China", and even that construction was a long time ago. Obviously there are geopolitical implications to such choices.

Local place names can be well-known shibboleths and trip-ups as well. Nevada is one such sensitive place (amusingly, one of the people in the story has an Hispanic last name). I was born in ill-i-NOY, not ill-i-NOISE. I've been to both Des Moines (duh-MOYN) and Des Plaines (dez playnz). And in Wisconsin I've noted much annoyance with the flattened California accent applied to the name ("It's not wisCAWNson"), but that's probably just the cot/caught thing. Ultimately this is not a party-type shibboleth, though, just a local/outsider thing.
posted by dhartung at 1:37 AM on October 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

There is a 1990 SNL routine with Jimmy Smits and Bob Costas, involving the proper Spanish pronuniciation of names of cities and teams. Unfortunately it's not available online.
posted by yclipse at 5:16 AM on October 11, 2008

Not sure if this counts, but during the Falklands War, some on the British right wing said that the fact that the BBC said "British troops" rather than "our troops" indicated unpatriotic bias.
posted by WPW at 5:58 AM on October 11, 2008

Best answer: In Missouri, it appeared to me (late 1990s) that the Missour-uh pronunciation was a sort of shibboleth... conservative politicians tended to pronounce the "uh" while more liberal politicians and the ones in more urban locations tended to pronounce the "ee". This probably has something to do with geography, but it also seemed to function as an indicator of sophistication vs. "real" Missouri roots.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:38 PM on October 11, 2008

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