clarence thomas' dialect

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Mon Feb 25 23:43:16 UTC 2008

Yes, I've heard Thomas in numerous interviews and his speech is quite

The reason I've heard for his lack of questions in oral arguments is that he
does not think the oral arguments are particularly valuable. He prefers to
rely on the written briefs.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Wilson Gray
Sent: Monday, February 25, 2008 1:13 PM
Subject: Re: clarence thomas' dialect

That claim is unreal, and I ain't going for it. Thomas speaks
standardly far better than, i.e., Jesse Jackson or Saint Louis's own
Cedric the Entertainer, who have no trouble opening their mouths. And
mastering standard is no huge undertaking. I grew up saying things
like, "I ain't got nauh [nae@] nudn," but I learned to say, "I don't
have any more," when speaking to white folk without having to stay up
nights, studying by the light of a candle. East Texas BE isn't Georgia
Sea-Island (but isn't Thomas from Pin Point, on the mainland?)
Geechee, but it's quite different from standard in its own way. My
father used to tell me about problems that he had with what he called
his "Alabama brogue" (he was born on a farm near the hamlet of
Moundville, AL) when he was a law student at Wisconsin. And have you
ever heard Kissinger speak what purports to be English?

Maybe Thomas is just shy when he gets around certain white folk.
There's nothing wrong with that. A lot of colored folk who grew up
Behind The Cotton Curtain can't help but tense up in the presence of
The Man. I sometimes do, myself. When I was at M.I.T., white students
automatically "corrected" my grammatical intuitions as non-standard
when foreign students asked me for them, with no conscious thought
that their motivation for doing this could only be racism, since they
often joked that their own local dialects, hence oftentimes their
grammatical intuitions, were non-standard.

So, I told the foreign students that blacks were regarded as an
inferior people lacking any real grammatical intuitions WRT English.
Hence, the foreign students could avoid a delay by consulting only
white students about English, saving themselves the time that it took
for a white student to interrupt their consultations with me with the
"correct" intuition.

When white people, discovering that I'm a yellow-dog Chomskyite, try
to discuss with me Washoe, Nim Chimpsky, Talmy Gibbon, and other
sub-human primates supposedly endowed with speech, I ask them how they
can believe that apes can speak when they don't believe that all
humans can speak.

On Mon, Feb 25, 2008 at 2:14 PM, Dennis Baron <debaron at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>  Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>  Poster:       Dennis Baron <debaron at UIUC.EDU>
>  Subject:      clarence thomas' dialect
>  FWIW, just read this interesting comment in this morning's Chicago
>  Tribune -- in an article about why J. Thomas never asks questions
>  during oral arguments:
>  "In the past, the Georgia-born Thomas has chalked up his silence to
>  his struggle as a teenager to master standard English after having
>  grown up speaking Geechee, a kind of dialect that thrived among
>  former slaves on the islands off the South Carolina, Georgia and
>  Florida coasts."
>  Here's the url:
>  scotus-thomas-silence,0,7461288.story
>  Dennis Baron
>  Professor of English and Linguistics
>  Department of English
>  University of Illinois
>  608 S. Wright St.
>  Urbana, IL 61801
>  office: 217-244-0568
>  fax: 217-333-4321
>  read the Web of Language:
>  ------------------------------------------------------------
>  The American Dialect Society -

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