On February 9, 2016, Jeff Guo posted an article to the Wonkblog, which is a blog hosted by the Washington Post and is generally dedicated to the topics of economics and politics. The article was titled “Donald Trump’s accent, explained” and discusses how Trump’s “voice itself, that unmistakable instrument, has been a noteworthy element of Trump’s populist image” (Guo, 2016: 1). After this article, and throughout the rest of Trump’s campaign, more media posts started showing up discussing aspects of Trump’s accent (CBC, 2016; Kelman, 2016; etc; See Appendix A for a list of articles referenced in this paper). Through basic internet searches, it became apparent that members of the general public were also talking about the way Trump talked (See Appendix B for a selection of comments found online). This is not entirely unusual, as humans like to comment on human language use (Cameron, 1995), and every aspect of a presidential candidate seems to be discussed online, from clothing choices to haircuts to, even, political platform. What was interesting was the adjective that seemed to keep popping-up in these articles and posts: working class. Trump’s New York City English accent was being touted as ‘working class.’ Donald Trump is a billionaire and was born into a wealthy family. It seemed doubtful to me that he would have a working class accent, but it was striking that so many would use that term to describe how he spoke. Enter this study and the ultimate question it seeks to answer: How does Trump’s accent compare objectively to those of New Yorkers across the socioeconomic spectrum and in particular to those of working-class New Yorkers? The answer to this question raises another question that I have had in the back of my mind from the outset: If the phonetic features of Trump's accent do not justify the 'working class' label, what does account for the fact that so many people perceive his accent in this way?
To answer the primary question, two phonetic variables were chosen to analyze from several of Trump’s speech acts during his year of active campaigning: the vowel found in words like bath, trap and bad and the vowel found in words like thought, bought and coffee. The data is analyzed compared to findings from a handful of studies that looked at the NYC accent and correlations between various social and linguistic features (Labov, 1966; Becker & Wong, 2010; Becker, 2014). Several types of speeches were used as data sources.
Short answer: acoustic analysis of these two variables shows that Trump does not have the classic NYCE accent consistently. There are situations in which Trump does have a raised THOUGHT vowel and/or a greater degree of split in his short-a, but Trump never approaches the patterns of the NYC working class, as laid out in Labov (1966). This raises some questions that could potentially be addressed in future research: (1) Does the pattern presented here in Trump’s speech hold true for all five phonological variables of NYCE as laid out in Labov (1966), and perhaps for other linguistic features characteristic of NYC? (2) How well can people from outside a local community recognize socio-economic differences in the speech of people from that community? (3) How does the speech of billionaires fit into the sociolinguistic profile of a city like New York?
You can read my full qualifying paper by contacting me here.