Listening to Palin
By Robin Lakoff
Professor of Linguistics, UC Berkeley
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.
Robin Lakoff teaches and writes on language and gender; the politics of language; language and popular culture. More academically her work comes under the rubrics of sociolinguistics and the relationship between language form and language function.