U.S. Supreme Court

Justice Ginsburg's accent returns to her New York roots, linguists say

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. ABA Journal file photo by Sam Kittner.

Then-advocate Ruth Bader Ginsburg quashed her New York accent in a 1975 case argued before the U.S. Supreme court, but the accent is once again on display when she reads from the bench, a study has found.

The researchers concluded that Ginsburg’s early argument was an example of accommodation, in which people adapt their communications style based on whom they are addressing, Time reports. Now, Ginsburg doesn’t have to worry about what people think, the researchers say.

“Justice Ginsburg no longer needs to worry about whether she seems threatening to the court,” they write in a working paper; a 2014 version is here (PDF). “She is the court.”

The study used computer programs to analyze Ginsburg’s vocal patterns when she argued cases in the 1970s, and then again in the 1990s after she became a U.S. Supreme Court justice. New York University linguistics professor emeritus John Victor Singler conducted the study with researchers Nathan LaFave and Allison Shapp.

The study examined two features of New York accents. One is the use of the vowel sound in “thought” (think of the Saturday Night Live sketch “Coffee Talk,” pronounced “kuh-aw-fee tuh-awk” by the SNL character). The other is the dropping of R’s in certain words.

Could the shift simply be explained by Ginsburg’s changing voice as she got older? Researchers don’t think so. They say her accent has fluctuated since she returned to the court, rather than becoming more pronounced over time.

Ginsburg didn’t comment when contacted by Time. Her children told the magazine they couldn’t remember her accent changing.

Hat tip to How Appealing and Above the Law.

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