Conservative commentator, linguist, and future enemy of the right-wing blogosphere, John McWhorter analyzes Sarah Palin’s speech patterns, and the results are not flattering at all:
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.
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.
What McWhorter finds most fascinating though, and I agree, is the fact that Palin can speak like this, essentially saying nothing, and become such a big star in the process:
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.
We live in a country where people are soothed by sound bites and catch phrases. It’s not at all surprising that someone who would have been laughed out of a meeting hall in the 18th Century can succeed on the stump.
Rather, it’s utterly depressing.
H/T: Ben Smith