Notorious RBG

Linguists study Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s voice, pinpoint how it’s changed over the decades

Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist administers the oath of office to newly-appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as U.S. President Bill Clinton looks on 10 August 1993. (KORT DUCE/AFP/Getty Images)

For three years, a group of NYU professors of linguistics studied audio recordings of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s voice. The recordings they analyzed dated back to 1975, when Ginsburg made her first appearance before the nation’s highest court — not as a justice, but as a lawyer arguing on behalf of a client. The case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, was a pivotal one in the feminist movement as Ginsburg argued that her client, Stephen Wiesenfeld, deserved to receive his wife’s social security benefits after she died. As a schoolteacher, she was the household’s primary breadwinner, but Wiesenfeld was prevented from collecting the benefits because, at the time, they were seen as “mother’s benefits.” Had Wiesenfeld been the primary breadwinner who died, his wife would’ve had no problem collecting the Social Security benefits under the law. Ginsburg’s case cut to the heart of a major gender disparity, that wage-earning “is primarily the prerogative of men,” she said, paraphrasing the words of the first woman to serve as a district court judge who once made an impassioned argument about gender equality. Ginsburg’s argument was eventually successful and set the stage for further victories in the feminist movement based on the concept that handcuffing men in such a way really just holds back women, too. Listen to an excerpt of her oral arguments from the case below.

As the linguists at N.Y.U. listened closely to the above recording and compared it with audio captured throughout the 1990s when Ginsburg assumed a position on the Supreme Court bench and as recently as 2012, they noticed something interesting: her New York accent gradually returned. By 2012, her accent was on prominent display as she delivered the court’s unanimous opinion in a case that once again hinged on death and money. The professors’ theory about what was behind the change was a phenomenon known in linguistics as accommodation — a method of changing how one communicates depending on to whom one is speaking. Everyone does it, and the linguists said in Ginsburg’s case it’s impossible to speculate whether the method was deployed consciously or not. But after all of those years, why did the accent slowly reappear?

“Justice Ginsburg no longer needs to worry about whether she seems threatening to the Court,” the linguists wrote in a paper explaining the theory. “She is the Court.”

These findings were reported for the first time by TIME magazine, and Ginsburg declined to discuss the linguists’ discovery for the story. There’s a lot more to the linguists’ research and the audio from the 2012 recording can be heard at TIME. When you listen to it, pay close attention to how Ginsburg  pronounces the words “father,” “earner” and “survivor.”

Read the full story and listen to modern day recordings of RBG at TIME.

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