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Variation in the 'Iraq' Vowels

Any observer of the U.S. media with an ear for linguistic variation has probably noticed that the pronunciation of word Iraq varies according to both the first vowel {ay, Ih, iy} and the second vowel {ae*, a}. My collaborators Elizabeth Coppock and Rebecca Starr and I hypothesized that these vowels do not just randomly vary, but have (acquired) social meaning. We hypothesized that, for the first vowel, the (ay) [as in right] variant indexes political conservatism and the (iy) [as in be] and (Ih) [as in lib] vowels both index political liberalism, while for the second vowel, the (ae) [as in mad) variant indexes political conservativism and the (a) [as in job] variant indexes political liberalism.

Based on an analysis of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, we have found a significant correlation between a speaker's political party and their pronunciation of the second vowel of the word Iraq. We did not find such a correlation for the first vowel. The findings for the second vowel remain significant when controlling for speaker age, ethnicity, geographical region, and regional accent. In contrast, an analysis comparing U.S. news media sources found no statistically significant correlation between either vowel pronunciation and FoxNews (typically seen as politically conservative) versus NPR (considered by some to be politically liberal).

In 2012 we published a continuation the study of the U.S. House of Representatives by conducting an intraspeaker analysis of those speakers who style-shifted, i.e., who varied between the (ae) and (a) variants in the course of a single speech. This subgroup comprised 15% of the House in February 2007, and includes interesting individual cases (such as Representative Ron Paul) that support our more general claim that these vowels carry socials meanings that index political persuasian.

*Where '(ae)' refers to the ash vowel.

Related Papers & Presentations

Hall-Lew, Lauren, Rebecca L. Starr and Elizabeth Coppock. 2012. Style-Shifting in the U.S. Congress: The vowels of 'Iraq(i)'. In Juan Manuel Hernndez Campoy and Juan Antonio Cutillas Espinosa, eds. Style-Shifting in Public: New Perspectives on Stylistic Variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 45-63. [Pre-proof PDF]

Hall-Lew, Lauren, Elizabeth Coppock and Rebecca L. Starr. 2010. Indexing Political Persuasion: Variation in the Iraq Vowels. American Speech. 85(1):91-102. [Link to download]

Hall-Lew, Lauren, Elizabeth Coppock and Rebecca Starr. 2007. Variation in the 'Iraq' Vowels: Conservatives vs. Liberals. New Ways of Analyzing Variation 36 (NWAV36). 11-14 October, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

A Sample of our data

(courtesy of YouTube.com and Armyofone.org, http://www.youtube.com/user/armyofOne0001)

Double-click on the clip to hear it play:

Nancy Pelosi (Democrat; exclusive /a/-user)

Tom Tancredo (Republican; exclusive /ae/-user)

Ron Paul (Republican with long Libertarian history; dual-vowel user)

Various related links

Pronunciation Guides

Christiane Amanpour (CNN)

Blog & news commentaries