Jeb Bush announced his run for the White House yesterday in Miami.
"Our country is on a very bad course," he pronounced. "And the question is: What are we going to do about it?"
But perhaps as important as how he answered his own question is how he sounded while doing so. Pundits and the news media analyze everything from a candidate's sartorial choices to his or her posture and body language.
Cadence and accents are no less important.
"With our language we are not only transmitting information," Tamara Rakić, a social psychologist, said about a study of hers on accents and perception. "Language itself provides a lot of information about the person speaking."
Video by the Miami Herald
Compared to his brother's, Jeb's accent is closer to Standard English — the type you hear on the evening news.
And those of us with standard accents do enjoy a favorable bias, whatever the language. A study by Rakić found that German speakers with various regional accents were judged less competent and hirable by experiment participants.
"Generally, throughout the literature you find that the standard varieties are perceived as more competent," Rakić tells Konbini.
In the case of accents in the US, southerners are often deemed "nicer," but less intelligent. Even children are quick to make the judgment.
We can imagine that George W. Bush's drawl connotes a thoroughly American identity, or even patriotism. It could also suggest "something like a 'down-home persona,'" according to Kara Becker, who teaches linguistics at Reed College. "As for Jeb, he may be invested in presenting a different persona, one that is more educated and standard-speaking."
But that's not to say these adopted personae are totally fake, or "devious," as linguist Steven Weinberger tells Konbini. He teaches linguistics at George Mason University, and says that tuning your accent to your audience is "completely natural. I’m sure they get coached on it, since they have a coach for everything dealing with the campaign, but it’s something that we all do."
As for why the Bush brothers have different accents to begin with, the answer is the same as it is in any other case: different upbringings.
George W. Bush was two years old when his family relocated to Midland, Texas, within a phonetic territory known as Inland Texas, "where more advanced forms of Southern English are found," Becker notes, adding:
It's possible that the extra time he had in that dialect area (basically most of his formative dialect years, compared to Jeb, who spent ages 6 to 14 in Houston) could provide some explanation for his heavier accent.
As this map shows, Houston falls outside of Inland Texas. And Florida, where Jeb Bush would move in the '80s, lies outside of all the areas associated with phonetic characteristics mapped below.
Weinberger says accents are "stamped and codified by very early age." Six, specifically, the age at which Jeb moved to Houston.
But he still exhibits a mixed accent, according to Becker, by speaking with the pin/pen merger (whereby the vowels of those words sound the same), as well as a "slight fronting" such that the words "now" and "about" come out as "nae-uw" and "uh-bae-ut."
His southern sound stops shy of "glide deletion" — the change of a diphthong, or double vowel, into a single one (it's the characteristic Kevin Spacey affects while on the set of 'House of Cards', as "time" becomes "tahm").
A few signs point to Jeb Bush's reticence in identifying too closely with his surname. The first, as the New York Times points out, is his "selection of a spare logo, first used in his failed 1994 race for governor, that excludes his surname. It reads simply 'Jeb!'"
The Times also reported Bush aides saying the candidate's father or brother — presidents number 41 and 43 — would not be in attendance. They weren't (though his mother Barbara, 90, was).
Subliminally, it may be in Jeb's similar interest to have a closer-to-standard accent than George W. Bush — especially given the fine line he must walk between embracing his older brother and rejecting parts of his legacy.