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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

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.