In this installment of our monthly segment “Texan Translation,” we look at the language of Barbara Jordan – lawyer, Houston native and first Southern African-American woman in the U.S. House of Representatives. Jordan served there from 1973 to 1979.
Lars Hinrichs, associate professor of English linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, and director of the Texas English Project, says one of the first examples of Jordan’s diction that came to his mind was a speech she gave during the Watergate hearings in 1974.
“Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: ‘We, the people.’ It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that ‘We, the people.'”
Hinrichs says Jordan didn’t just rely on ideology to inspire her listeners; she used her own experiences to make her point.
“It gives it an individual perspective, which makes it more accountable, makes it more real and more precise,” Hinrichs says.
At another point in that same speech, Jordan said:
“But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision, I have finally been included in ‘We, the people.'”
Hinrichs says the words “amendment” and “interpretation” are examples of the precise use of language Jordan’s family taught her during childhood.
“They didn’t want any slang in the House, and they encouraged conscious word choice,” Hinrichs says. “Her father was a Baptist minister, so she was directly connected to that great tradition of African-American church rhetoric.”
Later in the speech, Jordan said: “Today I am an inquisitor,” with emphasis on the “or.”
Hinrichs says that pronunciation has roots in conservative Southern speech, but it’s also reminiscent of a “timeless, placeless” accent actors used in the 1950s. Hinrichs says actor Cary Grant used a similar “trans-Atlantic” accent in his movies.
“Hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”
Hinrichs says it’s almost as if Jordan is conveying the timelessness of the argument she’s making about the value of the Constitution by the way she pronounces her words.
“Precise diction, precise formulations and pronunciation – it’s rooted in that African-American church tradition which highly values elevated diction, precision, saying things precisely and, you know, no shortcuts,” Hinrichs says.
Written by Caroline Covington.