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Apr. 7 2010 - 9:19 pm | 1,916 views | 2 recommendations | 6 comments

The science of Palinspeak crystallized

Gov. Sarah Palin has breakfast and visits with...

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In an academically rich yet entertaining post, linguist John McWhorter explains what exactly it is about Sarah Palin’s speaking abilities that gives some people pause:

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). …

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. …

It’s not easy to come by insightful and original critiques of Palin these days — all too often she inspires a purely visceral rejection from some and a visceral embrace from others, neither group willing to figure out what it is about this woman that produces such strong reactions virtually across the board.

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.

Social scientists and historians could probably spend lifetimes studying how a woman barely capable of stringing together a noun and a verb — let alone possessing meaningful understanding of the complex issues facing us — is also such an extraordinarily skilled politician as to stake out as her own territory the entire landscape of troubled and dreary right-wing America.

Update: Gabriel Arana of The American Prospect argues that McWhorter’s premise is greatly exaggerated, if not fatally flawed.

I’m not a linguist like McWhorter or Arana so I’ll refrain from getting into the debate. In any event I don’t think McWhorter was purporting to have truly figured out the inner workings of Palin’s mind; I think he was merely offering one theory to underscore a conclusion the vast majority of Americans (not just liberals) have arrived at — obviously there are limitations when divining someone’s thought process. Even so, his TNR piece caught my attention as much for its entertainment value as its intellectual basis.


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  1. collapse expand

    She’s a moron. Who criticizes teleprompters and then writes notes on her palm so she doesn’t forget what she’s supposed to talk about.

  2. collapse expand

    Hey sarah, you want to make a REAL difference? Read and be edumacated:
    http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/talk/blogs/a/m/americandad/2010/03/an-open-letter-to-conservative.php

    Read it, know it, LIVE IT. You call yourself a conservative well damn it ACT LIKE ONE!

  3. collapse expand

    Why would you be so hung up on how Ms. Palin speaks? Biden makes bloopers and mistakes all of the time and Obama rambles on and makes silly errors unless he has his teleprompter to lean on. These assundry pieces on Sarah Palin have more to do with the writer having a dislike against Ms. Palin’s, but do not contain much substance. If Ms. Palin wasn’t effective, you wouldn’t bother writing about her.

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