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Listening to Palin

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | February 10, 2010

Sarah Palin has been ridiculed by intellectuals for her crimes against language – the sentences reminiscent of the Winchester House,  the g’s that drop like the gentle rain from heaven. But in ridiculing her communication, I think we run a risk. She is a master communicator who knows just what she is doing.

She has a reputation for frivolousness, but she gets into the conversation and hangs on like the proverbial pit bull. Her seemingly casual remarks may be uninformed, they may move the political discourse in the wrong direction…but they move it, well beyond the next news cycle. She forces us to take her seriously even when there’s no good reason to do so. Think “death panels.” Think “retarded.” If her throwaway lines accomplish nothing else, they distract attention from serious issues, a boon to the NO Party.

Is she a true or a faux populist? I can’t tell from her language: it could go either way. Dropping g’s is a marker not only of nonstandard dialect (and therefore populism), but increasingly of standard  casual speech (even professors are known to drop a g or two to drive a point home). But she has other tricks up her rolled-up designer sleeve. For instance, in her recent Tea Party keynote, she asked , “How’s that changey hopey stuff workin out for yuh?” Let’s look at a couple of choice pieces of that line.

Changey, hopey. First of all, these are irresistibly catchy neologisms. They guarantee that her line will be all over the media for some time to come. Then, the fact that they are neologisms gives them both a colloquial feel, and imputes to their speaker a brashness and freshness: not your TelePrompTer-dependent pol. I am not of course suggesting that she was making it up spontaneously – only that this kind of verbiage makes her look as if she is, making her sound new, exciting, and spontaneous.

Besides, by their casual bounce, the words seem to ridicule their source: Obama’s speeches. Obama’s style, while somewhat casual, is never really breezy – it’s professorial (something she took a swipe at in the same context). He tries to sound that way, normal and colloquial,  Palin’s novelties suggested, but when it comes to the crunch, he is risk-averse, he is, yuh know, stodgy. Old.

Yuh. What struck me here is that Palin put the stress on the preceding preposition, for, which allowed her to pronounce the pronoun as yuh – when normally stress would be on you. That suggests to me that the spontaneity has been worked over a bit – she knows what syllable to hit, and why, even when it’s an atypical choice: that choice gets her what she wants.

How’s that workin out for yuh. This is of course a cliché, a stock phrase in the political arsenal: just about everyone who ever mounted a political podium has used it.  But interspersed with the neologisms, it becomes a kind of commentary on same-old, same-old: it almost becomes new again. Just as we listeners are poised to yawn, she shakes us up.

But let us move from the verbal message to the paralinguistics – the tone, the voice itself. Here Palin is a complex mix of preacherly earnestness and twangy cowgirl. She really cares about what she is saying and those she is addressing – but not in some heavy-handed do-gooder way – rather, like a cheery, natural gal. So she’s a mommy – but also a babe.

Her tone, too, has its antecedents: to me she often sounds as if she’s channeling George W. Bush. He juggled, in his tone of voice, querulousness and petulance, along with explanatory pedantry, each as appropriate – to his ears, if not to most other people’s. Palin too juggles several voices, but they sound natural and cool. (Obama, on the other hand, has just one voice – the intellectual explainer.)

So it is reasonable to say that the rhetorical Palin is not the ingenue she seems, and bears close watching. Many of us may find what she says appalling – but what is more important in the long haul is how she says it. The nonverbal part of a message makes the verbal part appealing and inevitably true, if the speaker is accomplished. We had better not, to paraphrase a predecessor, misunderestimate her.

Comments to “Listening to Palin

  1. I remember when Sarah Palin was the most popular conversation project. I can’t believe she even has a reality TV Show.

  2. Sarah Palin would be funny if she weren’t so dangerous. If she became president of the USA she would be even more of a disaster than George W Bush.

  3. I don’t understand the draw. I live in the south, and her g droppin’ is like a bad Hollywood accent. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never lost that many g’s in the course of a regular conversation. Hell, she only campaigned here, and now she’s the authority on the real ‘Murikan accent? I don’t get it. Is she supposed to be relating to people who are like me? Because she talks like a faux uneducated twit, I’m supposed to give her my vote of confidence to lead the free world? Come on. We Americans in the south are renowned for lacking fully functioning mental elevators. It’s people like her that help promote the stereotype. There is not one bone in my body that wants to further that aim, just so a fake hillbilly can become the president. She’s fake, and she’s crazy. Sorry. This is one southerner who will keep dropping my g’s for the democrats.

  4. Sarah Palin is a complex person. In her political career, she has shown herself to be ruthless and unprincipled. Yet her public persona seems both genuine and perfectly attuned to the thoughts and language of Tea Party supporters. When Tina Fay was asked to do an imitation of SP on SNL, she found that was done best by repeating word after confused word what SP said in her interview with Katy Coric. Still, she is more than merely a “natural.” She did not invent the “death panel” claim. She does not seem to read much. Somewhere there must be a staff that feeds her juicy morsels. I am tempted to see the dark hand of Bill Cristol somewhere in the dark backstage but he has a tin ear and, though said to have a Ph.D from Harvard, seems dumb as stump. More likely, the publisher of her book provides her material to keep her in the public eye and her book moving off the shelves.

  5. Say what you will of the woman. She commands a lot of attention as evidenced by these comments. Professor Lakoff makes a valid point.

  6. I think you give to much credit to Sarah Palin, Occam’s razor states, that the simplest explanation or strategy tends to be the best one. and in palin’s case she is just that dumb.

  7. We should all be scared to death… not of Palin’s abilities or lack thereof, but of the fact that a large segment of the American public have allowed themselves to be energized and fooled by this new stretch the truth to fit type of politics.

    I just wonder how many of the students that she helped energize in her speech last week, by demanding a smaller Federal government are going to school on Federally subsidized loans or grants?

    When will the American people admit to the truth? No one wants to pay taxes, but no one wants to give up what those taxes buys for them.

    If we as Americans would do two things before the next elections, it would change our country forever… they would be:

    1) – Demand that congress outlaws lobbyists

    2) – Demand the the FTC hold political ads to the same standards of truth that they demand any other advertising on TV or the Internet.

    I mean both ads can’t be right, either one is BS or there both telling half truths and both should be shut down.

    Wake up America, we don’t need a tea party we need the facts!

  8. As much as people like to knock her for her short comings the women does have some power. In a world where being a leader and a woman is hard she doesn’t let people push her around and she keeps on pushing. As the leader of the free world I’d have a hard time if she could win over a majority approval anytime.

  9. Thank you for your comments on an amazing women. I believe that she exemplifies what make women of this century wonderful, she’s tough, beautiful, and proud. And any women who can handle a rifle like she can is a breath of fresh air!

  10. I’m not concerned about Palin’s linguistic crimes. I’m concerned about her unrepentant deceit. The current crop of absurdist Republicans have no guilt about claiming the moral high ground while lying through their teeth without a hint of remorse. It’s part of a historically affective technique in which you blame your adversaries for what you yourself are guilty.

    The apparent difference between the two parties is that we Democrats can’t let go of our Utopian delusion that people are basically rational and can be appealed to with logic. The Republicans, on the other hand seem to have a single track, abiding lust for personal wealth and take offense at notions of ethical or moral principle that might stand in the way of achieving it. Recall during the 2008 campaign how the McCain/Palin camp ridiculed the idea of community service and empathy and how easily they invented lies about Obama and the Democratic campaign.

    In my opinion, Palin is not clever; she’s an empty vessel and a latter day clone of Ronald Reagan. The Republicans and then the Neocons have used Reagan as an experimental puppet serving the narrow interests of banking and big industry including the military. The policies for which he was the spokesman have so undermined the California economy that it may never recover. Bush was the number two experimental clone and with Cheney’s guile and guidance handed the U.S. treasury over to Halliburton and it’s subsidiaries. We are all now feeling the pain of those years.

    But at least Reagan, who was never more than a B actor, could mouth his lines affectively. Palin, by the clear admission of even her professional trainers, can’t keep a coherent string of historic or political facts in her head, even if she palms them. She has learned, apparently in high school, a string of cutesy mannerisms of speech and gesture that she relies on for affect, and sadly, part of the American electorate finds her style (and lack of intellectual acumen) magnetically attractive.

    My fear is that well meaning thinkers like Ms. Lakoff, attempt to rationalize Palin’s “virtues” and give her credit without a thorough credit check.

  11. I just don’t know where to begin. I actually thought I would read some genuinely intelligent and thought provoking comments on this subject and I was wrong. To elevate, or otherwise discuss, Palin beyond the true domain from which she comes, i.e. unabashed and unalloyed ignorance, is a disservice to our better selves. To say we should be aware that her brand of ignorance could hurt us all is to repeat the obvious but then to say that we need to somehow “take her quite seriously” is enough to induce apoplexy. Why oh why do we try to make ourselves fear this kind of palpable ignorance. Palin represents a tradition and a segment of our population that is not interested in the truth. They are interested in persuasion of the rankest sort, unfounded and untrue polemics. I thought this blog would rise to the great reputation Berkeley enjoys. Come on people, you are more thoughtful than this, aren’t you?

  12. Well said! (And how much fun is it to say that to Prof. Lakoff!)

    Yes especially to your last paragraph: Palin is, indeed, not the ‘ingenue’ she seems to be, and should be watched closely.

    And love your assertion that the non-verbal part of a statement can render the verbal message appealing, esp if the speaker is accomplished.

    How true!

  13. ** Palin speaks crudely on behalf of the vile

    Millions of Americans vainly imagine that a retributive god will return within their lifetimes to punish their enemies, the “children of darkness”. They dwell in that diseased state of mind which I call “Ameristan.” Ameristan is a public (mental) health menace.

    Ameristan, of course, is more than a state of mind. Ameristan is home to the “folks” from whom our xian Taliban are recruited. These are the “pro-life” fanatics — who want to restore biblical misogyny by harassment, intimidation, and murder. They are members of Congress (“C” Street Family) who want the xian political ideology of Dominionism to replace an Open Society with a puritanical theocracy. They are the largely faceless school board members who want children to learn faith-based garbage as science. They are the well known faces of Rupert Murdoch and Fox News.

    Palin speaks for the citizens of Ameristan. She is Ms. Quintessential Hater of 2010. She hates scientific knowledge that gives the lie to bible worshiping fundies’ pseudo-theories like “intelligent design”. She hates uppity, educated minority members who don’t know their place — Barak Obama chief among them. She has become another xian immoralist on Ameristan’s propaganda cable TV network, Fox News.

    Palin’s rhetoric only seems novel or creative. Most Americans don’t live in Ameristan. They have almost no direct acquaintance with right-wing protestant preaching as theatre of the absurd. Palin practices an inverted snobbery which has vitiated all of christendom since its foundation.

    Self-righteous faith-based lies, howling illogic, and schoolyard taunts not only get uttered, they get praised. They ooze from xianity’s innermost self-affirmation: We stink, but stinking is godly. Or, reading S/Paul of Tarsus:

    27 . . . God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are. . . . 1Cor1:27-28 NIV

    Here is nihilism of at the core of western culture. Not 400 years of patient labor since Copernicus have extirpated the death wish given strident voice in the hateful doctrines of revenge so beloved by millions in Ameristan.

    the anti_supernaturalist

    The de-deification of western culture (including the sciences) is our task for the next 100 years.

  14. Sarah Palin is nothing more than a blank canvas on which the democratic herd projects its desires and anxieties. Rather than probing ‘who is Sarah Palin,’ we should ask what processes make Sarah possible. The danger in Sarah lies in how her meaningless babble can be reinterpreted into a multiplicity of meaning. She stands for everything but nothing, the perfect saint for the ‘common man/woman.’

  15. Obiwan wrote of conservatives: “the dumber or more corrupt they are, the more it reinforces their core idea.” Is this language helpful?

  16. Thank you, Prof. Lakoff. Now if someone could just clue in President Barack Obama on his painfully “dry” speaking style he just might get me in his camp. I find his speaking style to be as charistmatic and eloquent as an IRS auditor.

    Signing off with my favorite James Baldwin quote
    “A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.”

  17. “She really cares about what she is saying and those she is addressing…”

    No; no she doesn’t. That’s where you’re wrong, Prof. Lakoff. Just because she’s a hick doesn’t mean she has a heart of gold. Palin is an empty-headed twit who doesn’t give a rat’s behind about anyone but herself (including her children–look how she used them in the 2008 campaign). She only has power because there’s such a dearth of personalities on the right. She moves, she’s sparkly, and so people will watch her.

    Palin’s master of nothing, and she’s no populist either. America’s non-academic g-droppers are a much more diverse group than you seem to imply.

  18. The right wing has a natural advantage in political discourse. At the core of the conservative mindset is the idea less government is better, because government makes bad decisions. Thus, it doesn’t matter if the rightwing politicians are intelligent, or effective, or ethical: on the contrary, the dumber or more corrupt they are, the more it reinforces their core idea. On the other hand, because progressives envision a positive and proactive role for government, the burden is on them to demonstrate government can act intelligently, effectively, and ethically. This is hard enough under any circumstances, but more so when a substantial minority of congress has no interest in achieving this goal. For the conservatives, then, the task is relatively easy: the more incompetent they can make government seem, the more appealing their message.

  19. Sarah Palin invokes emotion (in both positive and negative tones) in everyone who listens to her. I agree that she should not be taken lightly. Invoking emotion is one way to incite people to react strongly to situations. I don’t think she’ll just fade into the sunset…

  20. University of Virginia politics professor Gerard Alexander in his piece in the The Washington Post, ” Are Liberals Condescending ” (10 Feb. 2010 ) proposes “Liberals are far more likely than conservatives to act like their ideas are right, and everyone else’s are flat wrong.” I believe Palin’s success is that she is testing against this arrogance –succeeding — and she is tapping this angle from the dissatisfaction angle of non-fulfilled campaign promises of economic prosperity.

    This part in the WP article from Jackie Gingrich is pertinent too: “Liberals are arrogant and out of touch: “The core difference between liberals and conservatives,” says Jackie Gingrich Cushman in Politico, “is that liberals believe that the government is smarter than the American people,” and conservatives don’t. That’s why liberals are so “condescending,” and conservatives are willing to “listen to ideas from ordinary people.” Palin is taping into the middle American dreamers who are not elitists at Tier I institutions nor privileged elites — but the common people with a common language. I believe America has survived or weathered many-a-storm by disembarking from aristocratic linguisms and by attacking the common vernacular to get the people aroused. Palin is one such example!

    undergrad & conservative: major history.

    • Thank you; these folks here are simply nuts and haters. G-D bless them one and all.

      I’m conservative. I LIKE Sarah Palin. However, I doubt I’d ever vote for her. The left doesn’t see her as genuine at all; I believe she is comfortable in her own skin and in her core belief system. Sarah is passionate. I love the idea of a Sarah Palin.

      We need new blood in Washington D.C. We need good leaders with common sense solutions with strong experience in business, meeting payrolls. We need strong leaders with experience in strategic planning.

  21. Stop being afraid to take ignorance on directly. She is a one trick pony who will wear out her style. It is only fresh (an odd choice of word) until it isn’t anymore. It’s the one hit wonder of political communication.

  22. I disagree with Dylan’s assertion that she’s good for Democrats.

    In fact, by ridiculing her directly, we only confirm the hyper-destructive perception that Democrats are elitist, intellectual snobs.

    Keep in mind, the Republicans were teetering on the verge of defeat because of an unpopular war and the economy. The McCain campaign pulled Palin onto the ticket with zero preparation, zero grooming, and she completely energized the base overnight. She did end up eventually pulling down the Republican ticket among independent voters (along with McCain’s own disastrous floundering on the economy), but I suspect that that was only a temporary setback.

    She is charismatic (far more charismatic than Bush, a two-term president), photogenic, and as Professor Lakoff so eloquently outlines, a master communicator. Bush proved that, with the right advisers and grooming, you don’t have to be a former editor of the Harvard Law Review or a Rhodes scholar to win over millions of voters. In fact, in most of the history of American politics, it’s better if you aren’t.

    • I also agree with Professor Lakoff and Dana. She is most definitely one of the most influential republicans of the present time. I personally would be pleased if UC Berkeley could bring her here to speak. It would be a very beneficial evening for everyone.

  23. As democrats, we should encourage and ridicule Palin. At political rallies, she’s a clever enough rhetorician to draw support, but she’s uninformed enough to break apart under any close scrutiny, losing support. As long we keep the dialogue about her focused on how flashy and dumb she is, Palin’s great for democrats. Who knows? This whole Tea Party movement may even end up Bull Moosing the Republican Party.

  24. Thank you, Professor Lakoff. People who make fun of Palin are actually fanning the flames of her support. She is to be taken quite seriously as she is part of a very dangerous [anti-democratic] movement in this nation.

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