The Babbel Blog

language learning in the digital age

A few words about Obama’s language

Posted on January 24, 2009 by

Obama is a language master, not many would disagree. Even at the inauguration, when renowned grammatical stickler Chief Justice John Roberts spontaneously corrected a split-infinitive in a fixed constitutional text when swearing him in, Obama righted the snafu in the act not just for legal accuracy, but for flow.

The speech that followed was rather spare, at least in comparison to the soaring rhetoric to which his campaign followers had become accustomed. Some interpreted it as taking inordinate amounts of slings at the departing administration, while others saw the simple prose, calling for responsibility, duty, service and sacrifice as a nod to, or a “reclaiming” of (an even Reagan-esque) right-wing type of talk.
Either way, all sides are acknowledging the effectiveness of “Obama-esque” language. Newsweek contended that Republicans have begun to ape the new president’s language by invoking the “grass roots,” even though what they signify with it might be something else completely.

But really, does any “side” have a monopoly on the tenets of faith, responsibility, duty, etc.? In a thoughtful comment, New York magazine saw Obama’s rather flourish-less talk this time not so much as a copy or re-framing of rightist language, but rather as a mysterious strategy towards cohesion.

In the meanwhile, this unified language has been making its way around the world, prompting a full translation for the deaf, a bestselling English-teaching text in Japan, and a freak last-minute censoring on Chinese national television.


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Hey Mara, if you actually read the Steven Pinker article you linked to, you’ll find that Roberts “corrected” a split verb, not a split infinitive. Also, chances are that Obama actually did correct it for legal accuracy rather than flow—I’m sure he had rehearsed the oath before taking it.

Hey Matthew, I certainly read the article, I just most likely did not get it correctly. As far as I understand it, a split infinitive IS a split verb, it’s just an alternate terminology. I am however not a linguist… Please explain it if it is otherwise, I’d be interested to know the difference!

An English verb in its infinitive form is two parts, for example, “to go”, and when you place a word after the “to”, such as “quickly”, that is splitting the (infinitive) verb. So Roberts reacted grammatically to the text of the oath by placing the adverb at the end rather than between the two parts of the verb, in other words splitting the infinitive. Or have I misunderstood it?

Hi Justin, as you can read here: Turkish or Portugese are next – but Japanese won’t come, at least not in the near future.

What is the possibility that will include tools for learning Japanese in the foreseeable future?

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