Registers in the Benghazi hearing

Move over Elmo, it’s Sec. Hillary Clinton’s and Rep. Trey Gowdy’s turn to talk about registers.

I only watched a smidgen of Clinton’s testimony this week. A lot of what I saw in the hearing was talk about other talk and other text, including Clinton’s previous testimony, her written responses to lawsuits, her statements in the media, other officials’ statements to the committee or to the media, reports of other investigations, and certainly more sources too.

So far, so normal. Reported speech is a very powerful, routine, and even necessary feature of communication. The intricacies of how reported speech works are of huge concern in discourse analysis and sociolinguistics but I don’t want to get into that now.

What does this have to do with registers? Recall that registers are ways of using language (accent, grammar, word choice, style, and beyond) that have a recognizable meaning or association (but only for some people and not others). Because the committee spent so much time asking Clinton about other things she said or wrote, they had opportunity to juxtapose Clinton’s language in vastly different contexts where she used different registers. See this exchange:

Here’s a queued up video of the hearing…

…and a transcript (from The Washington Post):

GOWDY: The first observation that I would make is that when you speak to the public, you say, “I turned over everything.” That’s for the most part a direct quote. When you talk to the public, you say, “I turned over everything.”
When you talk to the court, you say, ((Gowdy reading from document)) “while I do not know what information may be responsive for purposes of this lawsuit, I have directed that all my emails on in my custody that were — or potentially were federal records be provided to the Department of State and on information and belief that was done.” Why the different explanation depending on who you’re talking to?

CLINTON: Well, one is a shorthand, Mr. Chairman.

GOWDY: Well, why not just tell the court, I turned over everything?

CLINTON: Well, you know how lawyers are, they use more words perhaps than they need.

GOWDY: Trust me, I know that.

CLINTON: I thought you might.

GOWDY: And they charge you for every one of them.


CLINTON: Yes, I’m well aware of that, Mr. Chairman. And the clock is ticking.


GOWDY: Well, one more, one more and I will pay Mr. Kendall’s fee for the last question. How’s that?

CLINTON: Oh, I don’t think you want to do that, Mr. Chairman.


GOWDY: I probably can’t do it. You see my point, though, you are very definitive when you’re talking to the American people, that you turned over everything.

CLINTON: That’s right.

GOWDY: But those kind of lawyerly fudge words when you are talking to court on information and belief, and the reality is even tonight, you cannot tell us that you turned over everything, because you didn’t think you missed the 15.

CLINTON: Well, I didn’t have them, I turned over everything I had. Everything I had has been turned over to the State Department.

Gowdy, in essence, is asking Clinton why she used one register on a TV shows and another in a legal document. Her response basically boils down to, duh, TV shows and legal documents are different things! Gowdy moved on fairly quickly, perhaps realizing how odd the question was? In my view, sociolinguistically speaking, the question is wildly silly. Communicating differently in different situations isn’t sneaky or unusual, though it seems that Gowdy is trying to make that implication. That’s not to say that Gowdy is the only one being strategic here. Clinton response to a question about her using “fudge words” or ‘lawyer talk’ by speaking very plainly (“It’s a shorthand.”) and positioning herself as personally non-lawyery (“they use more words than perhaps they need.”) Important to remember here is that Clinton is a lawyer with a degree from Yale and an extensive legal career prior to her political one.

We can see two familiar features of registers in in this segment of the hearing: (1) they are models of action for particular contexts (e.g. talk shows vs. legal documents) but (2) someone can always re-present register usage in a new way (e.g. what was appropriate courtroom conduct becomes “fudge words”).

References/further reading: If this were an academic article, I might have cited Agha (2007) or other linguistic anthropological sources on registers and Volosinov (1973) or other language scholars on reported speech and its role in communication.

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