Making sense of Palinspeak

One of the curious features about Sarah Palin that invites considerable mockery is the way she expresses herself. What does one make of the following, uttered just before the 2008 election?

We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there and understand the contrast. And we talk a lot about, OK, we’re confident that we’re going to win on Tuesday, so from there, the first 100 days, how are we going to kick in the plan that will get this economy back on the right track and really shore up the strategies that we need over in Iraq and Iran to win these wars?

Or this, referring to Hillary Clinton:

When I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, ‘Man, that doesn’t do us any good, women in politics, or women in general, trying to progress this country.’

John McWhorter takes a stab at trying to understand why Palin speaks the way she does. He is a linguist whose book The Power of Babel I have praised before. He used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and is someone whose politics are at the conservative end of the spectrum and so cannot be accused of simply attempting to take a partisan shot at Palin. He seems genuinely intrigued at the way her thought processes work.

Palin is given to meandering phraseology of a kind suggesting someone more commenting on impressions as they enter and leave her head rather than constructing insights about them.

Part of why Palin speaks the way she does is that she has grown up squarely within a period of American history when the old-fashioned sense of a speech as a carefully planned recitation, and public pronouncements as performative oratory, has been quite obsolete.

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.

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.

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.

I think he’s right. Palin is ignorant about a lot of things and arrogant in her ignorance but is not unduly stupid.


  1. says


    I think that both you and McWhorter are pulling your punches.

    McWhorter’s conclusion finds it possible for “perfectly intelligent people” to identify with a politician who speaks like a child. Why would any intelligent person operate on that level? Has intelligence been completely decoupled from linguistic development? Call me old school if you will, but I reject that proposition wholeheartedly.

    In your own conclusion, you opine that Palin is “not unduly stupid?” Is this because you think that she is deliberately addressing this nation of children in a manner they will appreciate, and thereby acting rationally to enhance her own standing? Or do you, as McWhorter seems to, accept the premise that child-like linguistic expression is not ipso facto an indicator of stunted intelligence?

    For me, this piece is profoundly disturbing, albeit not surprising in the least. A citizenry operating on a childish level will never be capable of effective self-government. Not only will it lack the collective intelligence to solve increasingly complex problems; it will be more readily manipulated by powerful actors seeking to impose their own selfish solutions to those problems.

  2. Tim says

    I have to agree with Mr. Frost here. I think that a good definition of “stupid” is: “ignorant about a lot of things and arrogant in her ignorance.”

  3. says

    Richard and Tim,

    I don’t think that ignorance and arrogance equate with stupidity. After all, Palin won statewide office and has managed to parlay her stroke of good fortune into an actual career as a celebrity. That requires at a minimum a certain level of self-absorbed and self-interested shrewdness. It may not constitute high intelligence but I don’t think it is stupidity either.

    McWhorters’ point is that politicians find that the ‘just like you’ aw shucks shtick works with a lot of voters. Some deliberately put it on. In Palin’s case, I think it comes naturally since there has been no evidence that she speaks in any other way.

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