Time Spent In El Paso And Arizona Made Sandra Day O’Connor’s T’s Hard And Her Vowels Soft

The former Supreme Court justice took elocution lessons at a private school she attended in El Paso. She also lived on an Arizona ranch.

By Michael MarksApril 30, 2019 1:10 pm,

You might not know that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is a Texan. Though Arizona was her home as an adult, O’Connor spent much of her childhood in El Paso.

Lars Hinrichs, associate professor of English linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, and director of the Texas English Project, says O’Connor’s public speech was polished and clearly enunciated.

Hinrichs says he notices O’Connor’s hard “t” that recalls a time when American English took greater inspiration from British English than it does today. Now Americans t’s are typically softer in words like “letter” and “butter” than O’Connor’s are.

In a 2003 C-SPAN interview, O’Connor hit her t’s very hard.

“A questionnaire was sent out to all of us, by class members, asking a series of questions, including the question ‘If you had to to it all over again, and become a lawyer, would you? Would you do it all over again?’ A majority of my classmates said ‘no,’ and that shocked me.”

Hinrichs says O’Connor acquired her crisp diction at a private school in El Paso, called The Radford School for Girls. While there, she took elocution lessons.

O’Connor also lived on a ranch in Arizona. Hinrichs says her vowels are not as crisply pronounced, perhaps as a result of spending time in a rural, southwestern setting. Henrichs says you can hear it in an interview clip – especially the way O’Connor says “afternoon” and “relief.”

“And I got an airplane back to Arizona that same afternoon. And when I sat down in my seat in the plane and buckled my seat belt and started thinking about the past two days, which had been quite amazing, I breathed a big sigh of relief.”

Written by Shelly Brisbin.