Speed Reads

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Linguists spent 3 years studying how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks. This is what they learned.

Linguists have spent three years poring over audio to study the way Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks, Time reports. But rather than focus on the content of her words, NYU linguistics professor emeritus John Victor Singler and researchers Nathan LaFave and Allison Shapp analyzed the change in Ginsburg's accent between 1970 and the early '90s, up to present day. In her earlier speech, Ginsburg's New York accent — her "thought vowels" and "R-vocalizations" — is less pronounced. As time goes on, even accounting for her aging voice, Ginsburg's Brooklyn accent creeps back into the way she talks.

What the researchers discovered could give important insight not just into Ginsburg's speech development, but into the complicated social, political, and linguistic shifts in the way each and every one of us pronounces words, even if said words are as non-threatening as "coffee."

[The linguists'] theory, reported here for the first time, is that "conscious or not," the lawyer was doing something everyone does, what is known in linguistics as accommodation: adapting our ways of communicating depending on who we're talking to. Accommodating can be done through word choice, pronunciation, even gestures. A common example would be when someone returns to the town where they grew up and their accent comes roaring back as they talk to friends and family who sound that way, too.

[…] Noting that Ginsburg moved to Washington, D.C., in 1980, the linguists argue that the sounds of her youth have come back in part because one of the most powerful women in America doesn't have to fret so much about what people think these days. "Justice Ginsburg no longer needs to worry about whether she seems threatening to the Court," they write in a working paper. "She is the Court." [Time]

"Everybody actually has more than one accent," linguist David Crystal added for Time. "Everybody modifies their accent. Some people are so proud of a particular point of origin that they try their damnedest not to modify their voice, but this pressure to accommodate, as it's called, is in everybody." Compare Ginsburg's speech below, and read a full report of the study in Time. Jeva Lange