BUSHONICS SPEAKERS STRIKE BACK
WE’RE MAD AS HELL AND WE WON’T BE
March 19, 2001 -- The day Lisa Shaw’s son Tyler came home from school with tears streaming down his cheeks, the 34-year-old Crawford, Texas, homemaker, knew things had gone too far.
“All of Tyler’s varying and sundry friends was making fun of the way he talked,” Shaw says. “I am not a revengeful person, but I couldn’t let this behaviorism slip into acceptability. This is not the way America is about.”
Shaw and her son are two of a surprising number of Americans who speak a form of nonstandard English that linguists have dubbed “Bushonics,” in honor of the dialect’s most famous speaker, President George W. Bush. The most striking features of Bushonics—tangled syntax, mispronunciations, run-on sentences, misplaced modifiers and a wanton disregard for subject-verb agreement—are generally considered to be “bad” or “ungrammatical” by linguists and society at large.
But that attitude may be changing. Bushonics speakers, emboldened by the Bush presidency, are beginning to make their voices heard. Lisa Shaw has formed a support group for local speakers of the dialect and is demanding that her son’s school offer “a full-blown up apologism.”
And a growing number of linguists argue that Bushonics isn’t a collection of language “mistakes” but rather a well-formed linguistic system, with its own lexical, phonological and syntactic patterns.
“These people are greatly misunderestimated,” says University of Texas linguistics professor James Bundy, himself a Bushonics speaker.
“They’re not lacking in intelligence facilities by any stretch of the mind. They just have a differing way of speechifying.”
It’s difficult to say just how many Bushonics speakers there are in America, although professor Bundy claims “their numbers are legionary.”
Many who speak the dialect are ashamed to utter it in public and will only open up to a group of fellow speakers. One known hotbed of Bushonics is Crawford, the tiny central Texas town near the president’s 1,600-acre ranch. Other centers are said to include Austin and Midland, Texas, New Haven, Conn., and Kennebunkport, Maine.
Bushonics is widely spoken in corporate boardrooms, and has long been considered a kind of secret language among members of the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon. Bushonics speakers have ascended to top jobs at places like the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Health and Human Services.
By far the greatest concentration of Bushonics speakers is found in the U.S. military. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig is only the most well known Bushonics speaker to serve with distinction in America’s armed forces. Among the military’s top brass, the dialect is considered to be the unofficial language of the Pentagon.
Former President George H.W. Bush spoke a somewhat diluted form of the dialect that bears his family’s name, which may have influenced his choice for vice president, Dan Quayle, who spoke an Indiana strain of Bushonics.
The impressive list of people who speak the dialect is a frequent topic at Lisa Shaw’s weekly gathering of Bushonics speakers. That so many members of their linguistic community have risen to positions of power comes as a comfort to the group, and a source of inspiration.
“We feel a good deal less aloneness, my guess is you would want to call it,” Shaw says. “It just goes to show the living proof that expectations rise above that which is expected.”
Some linguists still contend, however, that the term “Bushonics” is being used as a crutch to excuse poor grammar and sloppy logic.
“I’m sorry, but these people simply don’t know how to talk properly,” says Thomas Gayle, a speech professor at Stanford University. Professor Gayle was raised by Bushonic parents, and says he occasionally catches himself lapsing into the dialect.
“When it happens, it can be very misconcerting,” Gayle says. “I understand Bushonics. I was one. But under full analyzation, it’s really just an excuse to stay stupider.”
It’s talk like that that angers many Bushonics speakers, who say they’re routinely the victims of prejudice.
“The attacks on Bushonics demonstrate a lack of compassion and amount to little more than hate speech,” says a prominent Bushonics leader who spoke on the condition that his quote be “cleaned up.”
Increasingly, members of the Bushonics community are fighting back. Lisa Shaw’s Crawford-based group is pressing the local school board to institute bilingual classes, and to eliminate the study of English grammar altogether. “It’s an orientation of being fairness-based,” Shaw says.
A Bushonics group in New England has embarked on an ambitious project to translate key historical documents into the dialect, beginning with the Bill of Rights. (For instance, the Second Amendment rendered into Bushonics reads: “Guns. They’re American, for the regulated militia and the people to bear. Can’t take them away for infringement purposes. Not never.”)
Bushonics activists say they’ll keep fighting as long as there are still children who come home from school crying because their classmates can’t understand a word they’re saying. Lisa Shaw hopes that every American will heed the words of the nation’s No. 1 Bushonics speaker, and vow to be a uniter, not a divider.
“We shouldn’t be cutting down the pie smaller,” Shaw says with quiet dignity. “We ought to make the pie higher.”
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Tom McNichol is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, Spy, Punch and other publications. His radio commentaries have aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”