The linguistics of Obama

Originally published Oct 14, 2008

If Obama wins the presidential election, he won’t just make history for being the first black president of the United States. He’ll also break new linguistic ground in the list of presidents’ names. And The Name Inspector is not talking about the fact that his middle name is Hussein. Coming to terms with the blend of bias, ignorance, and superstition that makes some people consider this fact relevant to Obama’s ability to lead our nation would take us too far afield.

The Name Inspector wants to talk about the name Obama. Just as Obama said about himself, “he doesn’t look like those other presidents on the dollar bills”, the name Obama doesn’t look–or, more importantly, sound–like the other presidents’ names.

An Obama victory would be a victory for vowels everywhere. It would be only the fourth name on the list of presidents to start with a vowel. The others are AdamsArthur, and Eisenhower. And it would be only the fourth to end with a vowel. The others are MonroeMcKinley, and Kennedy. Well, actually there are six other names ending, orthographically, with r whose final syllables are r-colored schwas, which are technically vowels, but let’s just ignore those for the time being. So, ignoring those, Obama would be the only name on the list to start and end with a vowel. No matter how you slice things, Obama would be the only name on the list to have more vowels than consonants.

So, does this little tidbit of linguistic trivia have any meaning?

Well, The Name Inspector believes that it might have a hand in making Obama’s name such an object of fascination. Obama must be one of the most rhymed- and punned-upon names in the history of U.S. presidential candidates: Obama MamaObama-nationObamomentumObamanable Snowman, etc. (Of course, Barack has also gotten attention: Barack the VoteBarack and Roll, etc.). Punning and other types of wordplay are ways of calling attention to the physical form of language, so people must think the look and sound of Obama is something special. The vowel-rich sound of Obama also makes it easier to combine with other words without creating ugly consonant clusters. The idea of people punning as much on John McCain’s name is sufficiently ridiculous to have warranted an article in the Onion.

The light, open sound of Obama seems to support the message of change that the campaign has highlighted. This is a case of serendipitous sound symbolism. Even the depiction of the “O” as a rising sun in Obama’s official campaign logo seems to delight in the very vowelicity of it all.

Of course, nobody planned this. Surnames are different from company and product names, which people invent. No candidate sits down and decides what name to use in a bid for the presidency. But a screening process has taken place historically. Though we’re a nation of immigrants from everywhere, the list of presidents’ names is overwhelmingly Anglo-derived, reflecting a prejudice that has stubbornly held on in political elections despite general improvements in Americans’ attitudes about ethnicity. It’s obvious that there are no non-European-sounding names on the list of U.S. presidents. But even if you limit yourself to Europe, there are no names whose origins are distinctly Polish, Greek, Italian, Spanish, or Norwegian, either. And lots of other European ethnicities could be added to that list.

The only “ethnic” (i.e. non-Anglo) names on the list of U.S. presidents are RooseveltVan Buren, and Hoover (Dutch); MonroePolkBuchanan, and McKinley (Scottish); Kennedy and Reagan (Irish); and Eisenhower (an Americanized form of German Eisenhauer). Plotting the geographical origins of those names on a map doesn’t get you very far from England. Leaving aside the Celtic-derived names, which got all mixed up with English before there was a United States, you’re left with a list of names derived entirely from the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.

Now along comes this guy named Obama. His name comes from Luo, a Nilo-Saharan language spoken, among other places, in Western Kenya, where his father was born. This is a big jump in the linguistic family tree. What we see in the name Obama is a typological difference between Germanic and the languages related to Luo. While Germanic has a tendency toward closed syllables, which begin and end with consonants, Luo tends more toward open syllables, which end with vowels.

Shankar Vedantam recently wrote a column in the Washington Post about how people subconsciously associate non-European-sounding names with things that are “foreign” and Anglo-sounding names (even when they belong to Brits) with all that is American. Let’s hope Americans can sensibly overcome this bias and vote for Obama/Biden in three weeks!

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