There is the timbre of his voice — pitched somewhere between a squawk and a scream. The propulsive cadence of his sentences. And of course, those distinctive habits of pronunciation (“yuuuge”).
Donald Trump's supporters often praise how the politician gives voice to harsh truths. But that voice itself, that unmistakable instrument, has been a noteworthy element of Trump’s populist image. Though he grew up in privilege, eventually attending college at Wharton, Trump never shed his Queens accent. Today, that accent helps him summon the stereotype of the blunt, no-nonsense New Yorker.
“He wants to sound macho,” explains John Baugh, a linguistics professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “As part of his whole tough-guy persona, he adopts almost a working-class style of speech.”
To understand how this accent is pivotal to our perception of Trump, consider the following video, recently posted by comedian Peter Serafinowicz:
Serafinowicz took an interview clip from Fox News and dubbed over Trump’s New York accent with a posh, British one. “What if Trump had elocution lessons?” reads the description.
"I watch a lot of his speeches," Serafinowicz remarked in an email. "He pretty much says the same things over and over — the ‘wall,’ immigrants, politicians are stupid, his constant boasting.... Can you imagine Obama or Bush or Clinton saying to a crowd, 'Has anyone read my book?' "
The video pokes fun at Trump’s macho stylings by assigning him one of the world’s fanciest-sounding accents. The words are still Trump’s, but when they come through in those British tones, Trump’s entire demeanor seems to change. He appears smarter. More refined.
“I found it quite amusing,” Baugh says of the juxtaposition. “This isn’t just a British accent,” he explains. “It’s what the British call Received Pronunciation — it’s the upper class variety of the British accent, which conveys a very lofty and haughty linguistic demeanor.”
The video illustrates that the way politicians talk can have a profound impact on how we understand them. This is no secret, of course. Every day, we judge people — consciously or subconsciously — by their styles of speaking. Our voices contain clues to where we grew up, where our parents came from, where we learned English. People often modify their natural accents to avoid stigma, or to invite a favorable assumption, because linguistic discrimination is real.
“It’s pretty much universal,” says Nicole Holliday, a linguistics PhD candidate at New York University who studies language and identity. “You can go anywhere in the world and ask who speaks the ‘bad’ version of the language — and invariably, it’s the people who are marginalized, who are rural, poor, or belong to religious minorities.”
Accents activate stereotypes. People do not perceive the New York style of speaking as particularly attractive or high-status. But they do associate it with competence, aggressiveness and directness.
“Democrat or Republican, in an age where trust in politicians is at a minimum, it is not hard to see the attraction of that blunt aspect of the New York image,” Michael Newman, a linguist at Queens College and CUNY’s Graduate Center, writes. “It’s a quality that can be profoundly appealing.”
Polls show that Republicans don’t think Trump is likable, honest or compassionate. But they do consider him decisive and competent, which Republican voters say are the most important qualities in a presidential candidate. In this way, Trump’s New York accent is a perfect fit for his shark-like political persona.
“Traditionally, the New York City accent has been stigmatized as rough and not necessarily intelligent,” Holliday says. “But people do perceive it as authoritative. So he’s got an accent that people don’t like, but that they find credible. Trump sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, because of his accent.”
Trump’s working-class New York accent may also help the billionaire appear a bit more relatable on the stump. Though he is stratospherically wealthy, his average-Joe way of speaking makes him sound a little more down to earth.
Many other politicians have been accused of sounding folksier on the campaign trail, especially when they have been making rounds in the Heartland.
Last year, Bloomberg Politics traced the history of Hillary Clinton’s speaking style, which took on Southern shadings when she was a politician’s wife in Arkansas, but shifted northward when she became a first lady and later a New York senator. Recently, Clinton’s drawl resurfaced as she was campaigning in Tennessee:
Barack Obama does something similar. When he gives speeches at black churches, for instance, his voice develops a twang.
“When Hillary’s down South, she’s more likely to say ‘y’all’ or something along those lines, even though she would never say that in one of her Wall Street meetings,” Baugh says. “And with Obama, it absolutely shows up when he’s speaking to a black audience. I notice it mostly in words like ‘history’ and ‘geography’ — the vowel is a little longer and the intonation rises slightly.”
The habit is not unique to politicians, and it is not always an affectation. People naturally adjust the way they speak depending on their audience, often without being aware of it. Researchers believe the habit helps foster a closer connection between by emphasizing people's similarities.
“We call that linguistic accommodation, or dialect leveling, and it’s pretty common,” Baugh says. “When you’re interacting with someone whose dialect is different from your own, you subconsciously adjust your speech to reflect the way they speak. For a lot of people it’s considered to be a sign of linguistic empathy.”
Because people attach such social significance to accents, the way that a politician talks becomes a rhetorical tool — another way to connect with voters or to burnish a certain public image. As it turns out, Donald Trump is a beneficiary not only of his family's wealth, but also of his family's way of talking, which appeals to our biases about accents and New Yawkers.