John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Why Sarah Palin talks like that

If you have marveled, as many have, about Sarah Palin’s distinctive speech patterns, John McWhorter has an explanation: She speaks like a child.

Please, please, good people, before you rush to Plymouth Road with your pitchforks and torches, this is not a Palin-bashing exercise. Dr. McWhorter is a linguist, and he presents at The New Republic a linguistic analysis of Ms. Palin’s speech patterns, along with an explanation of its appeal to the public.

As he explains, it was once the case that public figures practiced oratory. They thought out carefully what they intended to say, they wrote it down, in formal English, and they delivered it. One surviving exemplar of this practice is Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia:

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.

Public address, even in Congress, has become much more casual, more conversational, more informal, more colloquial. And Ms. Palin, Dr. McWhorter argues, has carried this development further. Though you owe it to yourself to read his entire article, what his examination of a set of Palin utterances shows is that she does not link words and phrases so much syntactically or logically, but associatively.

The people who like that form of speech are those who are uncomfortable with the formalities and structures of written English. And that, though Dr. McWhorter does not address the point, is a potential source of difficulty for President Obama. The American people, taken as a whole, admire educational credentials more than they admire education, and Mr. Obama’s careful, structured, lawyerly sentences are likely to pall over time.

Mr. Obama’s supporters like to think that he is a model American, but I suspect that Dr. McWhorter is closer to the mark in his conclusion:

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.  


  1. How very depressing.

  2. Patricia the TerseApril 7, 2010 at 4:14 PM

    Pres Obama can't order lunch without a teleprompt.Vide his recent 17 minute answer to a direct question about taxes. I don't pay much attention to Mrs Palin - I have no quarrel with her except that I'm extremely envious of her cheekbones and eyes - but she seems to have a direct way to communicate with people. The White House might pay more attention to that.

  3. Although not a political fan of President Obama given the choice between listening to him talk and Mrs. Palin I'd take Our president any day. I think he is a fine and interesting speaker and motivator. This from a libertarian leaning conservative. I have no problems giving him is due. Many people voted for him because of his fine speaking abilities with total disregard for what he was actually saying. Palin I can stand only a few minutes at a time. I recently tried to watch her new show on Fox News and found her boring and uninspiring. SO may side with her for her points of view but presidential she is not.

  4. News flash, Patricia: Every politician uses a teleprompter and has for years. I really don't get why that's such a big deal for you people, especially given that Bush couldn't string three words together and sound coherent.

    And you want her cheekbones. Great electable quality, there. I suppose it won't bother you if she quits halfway through her campaign?

  5. Palin in 2012-2014!!

  6. Obama spent the entire "summit" with the Republicans without a teleprompter. Palin writes her values on her hand.

    Can we let this tired, false meme pass into oblivion?

  7. For several weeks, I've worn a button with a picture of Sarah Palin and this sentence in very small type: Thinking gives you wrinkles. I am alarmed, yet not surprised, by the number of people who don't quite get the joke.

  8. My problem with Palin's oratory is that the content of her speech seems to boil down to caveman-like syllogisms: Socialism bad. Obama socialist. Therefore Obama very very bad. You betcha!

  9. Patricia the TerseApril 8, 2010 at 1:38 AM

    Ah, yes - the euphemistic "you people" from a person with a yellow stripe down his back who won't even use part of his name.

  10. Well done, John -- Google Alerts are wonderful things for increasing the number of comments, aren't they?

    I have always been interested in linguistics, as I suspect many copy editors are. John McWhorter's point about spoken versus written language is particularly interesting because it relates back to newspapers. The language in newspaper stories also straddles those two worlds, since clarity for the reader is so important in journalism. Newspapers are often the place where new words and phrases in the constantly changing English language are "formalized."

    In fact, it continues to irk me that so many U.S. publications still write "Web site" when Canadian Press style (I'm outed as a Canuck) moved to "web site" and finally "website" many years ago.

    As an aside, this style of political narrative isn't unique to the U.S. Our prime minister (himself more of a careful thinker than a "regular Joe") continues to create a narrative terming the opposition leader an "intellectual" due to his academic credentials. In a country where "intellectual" leaders have been something of a tradition, the prime minister is attempting to turn it into a dirty word.

    Anyway, I just wanted to agree with John that, regardless of political affiliation, there are many interesting points about language raised by the Palinspeak story.

  11. One comment about this post on Twiter: "The 'linguist' is just another elitist East Coast liberal."


    1. Someone who has a doctorate in linguistics can probably be called a linguist with the quotation marks.

    2. "Elitist," though, may be fair, given that until we start issuing Ph.D.s with birth certificates, people holding doctorates will remain an elite group.

    3. Dismissing the article as merely the work of a liberal is name-calling, not rebuttal or refutation.

  12. Generally, people at the Manhattan Institute are not your standard brand of "elitist East Coast liberal". Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  13. Hmm. My general impression (mostly from his informal writing) is that McWhorter is rather on the conservative side of things. He's certainly a linguist, no quotes needed, by any standard. Belonging to an elite might make you an 'elite' (it's a count noun in that sense), but it doesn't make you an 'elitist.' (FWIW, in my limited experience, people who specialize in dialect are pretty down-to-earth.)

    If you can't beat 'em, make stuff up and call 'em names.

  14. McWhorter's article is quite balanced. In spite of his conservative leanings, I thought he stayed with his point without bias. It was interesting to read his point about the use of the word "that" (as in "that health care thingy")which tends to distance the speaker from the subject. I have bristled when hearing it in Palin's speeches but couldn't put a meaning to my reactions. That's it. She is a spectator, not a participant. It's easy to take pot shots from a distance without offering quality advice. Not my idea of someone I want in charge.

  15. I do have a problem with McWhorter's article. Because the problem with Sarah Palin's speech is not that it's colloquial, conversational, or even stream of consciousness. That would all be just fine. The problem is that she doesn't SAY ANYTHING.
    There's no content. There's no there there. It's just a pastiche of propagandistic impressions. So when he says it's not moronic, he's wrong.

  16. I agree with Anonymous. She doesn't SAY ANYTHING- most of the time. The rest of the time she appears to have memorized ultra conservative catch paraphrases that someone taught her. I think she inserts words when she cannot remember the next phrase on her list.

    As one of few female politicians in the limelight today, I think she reinforces distasteful stereotypes for many people. She is a source of great embarrassment to the American political process, politicians, women and conservative politicians.

    On a positive note: The democratic party has benefited immensely from her lack of eloquence and sophistication so far....On the other hand, this may not last.

    George Bush Junior's unsophisticated and sometimes "nonsensical" speech patterns never hurt him. He was accepted to and graduated from an ivy league college. He became very wealthy in his own right. He enjoyed a long career as Governor of a large state. Finally he led one of the most powerful countries and armies in the world.

    The American people don't really like eloquent speech patterns and coherent thoughts. As a group, it seems that we like (above all else) to be reminded that people are friendly and unsophisticated even when they come from elite backgrounds....

  17. For a linguist, McWhorter has an idiosyncratic way with words. Whatever did he mean by "minted" in that passage about Robert Byrd? I can guess; but I don't think I should be required to. has "mint" as an intransitive verb meaning to attempt or to take aim, used in Northern England and Scotland; but I doubt that's it.

  18. @Patricia: You like Palin's eyes and cheekbones? Perhaps you should ask her who her plastic surgeon is, since she has had both done.

    I see her not as speaking like a child, for even children know how to form complete sentences. This looks like a language impairment condition to me. It is not within the range of normal.