What Does Palinspeak Mean?

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JOHN MCWHORTER APRIL 6, 2010

What Does Palinspeak Mean?

Why does Sarah Palin talk the way she does? Just what is this sort of thing below?

We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there and understand the contrast. And we talk a lot about, OK, we're confident that we're going to win on Tuesday, so from there, the first 100 days, how are we going to kick in the plan that will get this economy back on the right track and really shore up the strategies that we need over in Iraq and Iran to win these wars?

Just forty years ago people would be shocked to read something like this as a public statement from someone even pretending, as Palin pretty much had to have been by the time of this quote, that they were going to be serving in a Presidential Administration.

It’s not quite Bushspeak, which, with the likes of “I know what it’s like to put food on my family,” was replete with flagrantly misplaced words with a frequency that made for guesses, not completely in jest, that he might suffer from a mild form of Wernicke’s aphasia, interfering with matching word shapes to meanings. (Bush the father wasn’t much better in this regard—there just wasn’t an internet to make collecting the slips and spreading them around so easy.)

Rather, Palin is given to meandering phraseology of a kind suggesting someone more commenting on impressions as they enter and leave her head rather than constructing insights about them. Or at least, insights that go beyond the bare-bones essentials of human cognition — an entity (i.e. something) and a predicate (i.e. something about it).

The easy score is to flag this speech style as a sign of moronism. But we have to be careful — there is a glass houses issue here. Before parsing Palinspeak we have to understand the worldwide difference between spoken and written language — and the fact that in highly literate societies, we tend to have idealized visions of how close our speech supposedly is to the written ideal.

Namely, linguists have shown that spoken utterances — even by educated people (that is, even you) — average seven to ten words. We speak in little packets. And the result is much baggier than we think of language as being, because we live under the artificial circumstance of engaging language so much on the page, artificially enshrined, embellished, and planned out. That’s something only about 200 languages out of 6000 have been subjected to in any real way, and widespread literacy is a human condition only a few centuries old in most places.

So — here is a transcript of actual college students in California in the 1970s, discussing a scientific issue. They would give the impression, heard live, of perfectly intelligent people; none of us would leave wondering why they weren’t “articulate.”

A. On a tree. Carbon isn’t going to do much for a tree really. Really. The only thing it can do is collect moisture. Which may be good for it. In other words in the desert you have the carbon granules which would absorb, collect moisture on top of them. Yeah. It doesn’t help the tree but it protects, keeps the moisture in. Uh huh. Because then it just soaks up moisture. It works by the water molecules adhere to the carbon moleh, molecules that are in the ashes. It holds it on. And the plant takes it away from there.

B. Oh, I have an argument with you.

A. Yeah.

B. You know, you said how silly it was about my, uh, well, it’s not a theory at all. That the more pregnant you are and you see spots before your eyes it’s proven that it’s the retention of the water.

In this light, we have to remember that we are paying extra special attention to the gulf between Palin’s speech style and the prose of the Economist. Part of why Palin speaks the way she does is that she has grown up squarely within a period of American history when the old-fashioned sense of a speech as a carefully planned recitation, and public pronouncements as performative oratory, has been quite obsolete.

Thus after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Congressman Charles Eaton of New Jersey said:

Mr. Speaker, yesterday against the roar of Japanese cannon in Hawaii our American people heard a trumpet call; a call to unity; a call to courage; a call to determination once and for all to wipe off of the earth this accursed monster of tyranny and slavery which is casting its black shadow over the hearts and homes of every land.

He meant this straight. He had it composed the night before and when he stood up to talk, he read, and it was prose that almost sounds like he wanted to set it to music. Sixty-one years later, Senator Sam Brownback gave his thoughts on the wisdom of invading Iraq, and my, how times had changed:

And if we don’t go at Iraq, that our effort in the war on terrorism dwindles down into an intelligence operation. We go at Iraq and it says to countries that support terrorists, there remain six in the world that are as our definition state sponsors of terrorists, you say to those countries: We are serious about terrorism, we’re serious about you not supporting terrorism on your own soil

Not exactly John Stuart Mill. It’s got direct quotation: “You say to those countries, 'We are serious about terrorism ...'” rather than the more “written” “You say to those countries that we are serious about terrorism ...” This is a spoken language trait, like kids’ “And he’s all ‘Don’t do that!’” using mimcry rather than detached comment. It’s got what linguists call parataxis, where you run phrases together without smoothing out the transitions with conjunctions and such: “We go at Iraq and it says to countries ...” instead of “If we go at Iraq, then it says to countries ...” or the way the “there remain six in the world that are as our definition ....” just jammed in. And never mind “go at.”

Brownback was perfectly comprehensible, and intonation does a lot of what indirect quotation and parataxis do on the page. Yet it wasn’t a polished performance — but if he had given one, he’d look in our times as peculiar as, well, Robert Byrd does. Byrd is old enough to have minted in the days when making a speech meant clearing your throat and reading a prepared statement bedecked with ten-dollar words, and it qualifies today as an eccentricity. The practice will die with him.

And more to the point: the fact is also that no one makes fun of Sam Brownback as especially tongue-tied. He’s normal — lots of the statements on Iraq in that session sounded just like his and no one batted an eye. Yet his passage on Iraq, we must admit, doesn’t sound all that different from something Palin would come up with today.

Yet Palinspeak still differs from statements like Brownback’s in degree. It’s a rather extreme case — an almost instructive distillation of the difference in public conceptions of language in Charles Eaton and Robert Byrd’s time versus our own. “Folksy” is only the beginning of it — “You betcha,” -in for -ing, and “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” during her debate with Joseph Biden indeed make her sound accessible, ordinary, unpretentious. This, however, is America as a whole, and no one should be shocked that a public figure would strike this note. “You betcha” hits the same chord in Palin’s fans as the equally folksy — and close to meaningless -- “Yes, We Can” intoned in a preacherly “black” way did when a certain someone else was saying it. Folksy is America; it always has been, but is especially so now.

What truly distinguishes Palin’s speech is its utter subjectivity: that is, she speaks very much from the inside of her head, as someone watching the issues from a considerable distance. The there fetish, for instance — Palin frequently displaces statements with an appended “there,” as in “We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there...” But where? Why the distancing gesture? At another time, she referred to Condoleezza Rice trying to “forge that peace.” That peace? You mean that peace way over there — as opposed to the peace that you as Vice-President would have been responsible for forging? She’s far, far away from that peace.

All of us use there and that in this way in casual speech — it’s a way of placing topics as separate from us on a kind of abstract “desktop” that the conversation encompasses. “The people in accounting down there think they can just ....” But Palin, doing this even when speaking to the whole nation, is no further outside of her head than we are when talking about what’s going on at work over a beer. The issues, American people, you name it, are “there” — in other words, not in her head 24/7. She hasn’t given them much thought before; they are not her. They’re that, over there.

This reminds me of toddlers who speak from inside their own experience in a related way: they will come up to you and comment about something said by a neighbor you’ve never met, or recount to you the plot of an episode of a TV show they have no way of knowing you’ve ever heard of. Palin strings her words together as if she were doing it for herself — meanings float by, and she translates them into syntax in whatever way works, regardless of how other people making public statements do it.

You see this in one of my favorites, her take on Hillary Clinton’s complaint about sexism in media coverage:

When I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, 'Man, that doesn't do us any good, women in politics, or women in general, trying to progress this country.

For one thing, the that again. And then “that” use of perceived: properly it would be “perceived criticism,” wouldn’t it, rather than a “perceived whine”? All whines worthy of note, we assume, are perceived -- whines unperceived don’t make the news and thus do not require specification as such. There are two explanations for how Palin used perceived here.

She may have meant that she perceived the whine despite its being perhaps disguised in some way, in which case she just plopped in the perceived part when it occurred to her, which was apparently after it would have been logically placed, earlier in the utterance, such as in place of hear in “When I hear a statement ...” It’s almost deft — she thought of perception, and plugged it in before whine by rendering it into an adjective as perceived. In any case, though, this is someone watching thoughts go by at a certain distance and gluing them together willy-nilly — for the first time.

Or, she may have meant “perceived criticism,” but thought of the perception early, and instead of waiting, just stuck it in early. It’s a kind of linguistic Silly String — and in that, hardly unknown among ordinary people just talking. But it’s a searching kind of expression, preliminary, unauthoritative. To a strangely extreme degree for someone making public utterances with confidence.

Then if you read the quote straight it sounds like she means women shouldn’t progress. But what happened is that she thought first of the complaint, and then tacked on a reference to women progressing; in her own head she thinks of it as something good, but she perceived no need to make that clear to those listening. She in there, in her head.

"And Alaska -- we're set up, unlike other states in the union, where it's collectively Alaskans own the resources,” Palin will tell us, where the fact that it is not, in blackboard sense, a sentence at all is only the beginning. She means that the arrangement in Alaska is collective, but when it occurs to her she’s about to say Alaskans such that “collective Alaskans” would make no sense. So, if it can’t be an adjective, heck, just make it an adverb — “it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources.”

Palinspeak is a flashlight panning over thoughts, rather than thoughts given light via considered expression. It bears mentioning that short sentences and a casual tone can still convey information and planned thought. Here was Biden, as a matter of fact, in his debate with Palin:

Barack Obama laid out four basic criteria for any kind of rescue plan. He said there has to be oversight. We're not going to write a check to anybody unless there's some kind of oversite of the Secretary of the Treasury. He secondly said you have to focus on homeowners and folks on Main Street. Thirdly, he said you have to treat the taxpayers like investors in this case. Lastly, you have to make sure the CEO’s don't benefit. This could end up eventually as people making money off of this rescue plan. A consequence of that brings us back to a fundamental disagreement between Gov. Palin and me and Senator McCain and Barack Obama.

Biden will never compete with Churchill as a man of words, but he gets his point across even without the prop of the F-word, and always has — I remember admiring his speaking skills when I was a teenager.

I don’t think Palin’s phraseology is actively attractive to her fans. Rather, what is remarkable is that this way of speaking doesn’t prevent someone, today, from public influence. Candidates bite the dust for being untelegenic, dour, philanderers, strident, or looking silly posing in a tank. But having trouble rubbing a noun and a verb together is not considered a mark against one as a figure of political authority.

It used to be that a way with a word could get you past the electorate even if there was nothing behind it. Did you ever wonder why, for example, a mediocrity like Warren G. Harding became President? It was partly good looks, but partly that he had a gift for making a speech. If he had stood on daises talking like Sarah Palin day after day and there existed the communications technology and practice to bring this regularly before voters, James Cox would have become President.

The modern American typically relates warmly to the use of English to the extent that it summons the oral — “You betcha,” “Yes we can!” -- while passing from indifference to discomfort to the extent that its use leans towards the stringent artifice of written language. As such, Sarah Palin can talk, basically, like a child and be lionized by a robust number of perfectly intelligent people as an avatar of American culture. And linguistically, let’s face it: she is.

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posted in: john mcwhorter, politics, america, iraq, islamic republic of iran, barack obama, bush, charles eaton, condoleezza rice, hillary clinton, joseph biden, robert byrd, sam brownback, sarah palin, california, hawaii, new jersey

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