2 2 2-9 2016

Has Barack Obama Changed his Language in Later Life? A Case Study of -ing/-in Variation and the MOUTH Vowel

Xinyun Lei, Siqi Liu


This paper aims to explore whether individual speakers can change their language at the phonological level across their lifespan, especially after the critical period, by conducting a longitudinal study on U.S. President Barack Obama at three time points in his middle years: 1995 (age 34), 2008 (age 47), and 2014 (age 53). The two phonological variants -ing/-in  and the /aw/ vowel were investigated. Our data were collected from three formal TV interviews with Barack Obama, available on YouTube. We transcribed the first 14– 17 minutes of each interview as our research samples. A quantitative analysis was conducted on word-final -ing/-in  and the F1 and F2 of /aw/ by employing Multivariate Analysis and a Fisher’s Exact Test.  As Obama identifies with being an African American, he is expected to use the alveolar variant at a higher rate than the velar nasal. However, according to our results for -ing/-in , Obama shows almost no change in our data. This could be accounted for by his occupations, including that of lecturer and president, requiring the use of the standard language as well as by the stability of the variables -ing/-in  themselves. However, in contrast to previous findings that -ing  tends to be favoured in nouns, while -in  is preferred in verbs (Wagner 2012b), our research showed no such preference, possibly because of the relatively formal speech style. As for Obama’s  /aw/ vowel, the data reveal a dramatic change in both lowering and fronting from age 34 to 47, while no difference is found between the ages of 47 and 53. Geographical relocation and social mobility could account for this linguistic change. To conclude, these patterns indicate the possibilities of individuals changing their language across their lifespan; and several motivating factors, such as geographical and social class mobility, style of speech, and accommodation, tend to affect the courses of the change.


lifespan change; intraspeaker variation; sociolinguistics, US English

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