Listening to Palin

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

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.

Republished with permission from the California Progress Report.


  1. tm says

    “We had better not, to paraphrase a predecessor, misunderestimate her”

    “Fascist Barbi becoming the standard bearer for a major political party?”

    I am all for the Republicans running Palin in 2012 and have been since Nov. 4. That’s because, unlike people like Lakoff, I pay attention to the facts; from last November,

    “Seventy percent of respondents to a CNN/Opinion Research poll said Palin is not qualified to be president.”

    and from a recent poll:

    “The percentage of Americans holding a favorable view of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has dipped to 37 percent, “a new low,” in the latest national ABC News/Washington Post opinion survey.”

  2. tm says

    “I was more than a little puzzled as to why the GOP would think her an asset to the ticket”

    I understand why, but like Ms. Lakoff, they have an extremely selective perception. McCain’s choice of Palin virtually guaranteed Obama’s win; while it sewed up the wingnut vote for him, it sent all those Hillary supporters who thought that Obama had cheated them of a female president straight into his arms. That would have been fine for McCain if there were a lot more of the former than the latter, but the opposite is true.

  3. tm says

    What a lot of drivel. “I can’t tell from her language: it could go either way” — so it is for someone to whom “language” is devoid of content and meaning.

  4. Alberto Escalante says

    In my humble estimation Sarah Palin isn’t a so-called “Babe” as Mr or Ms Lakin so flippantly suggests. If anything she is an ananthema on all of the hard work of so many dedicated feminists who’ve fought for so many years to educate men that women are much more than just coquettish painted up eye-winking “Jezabels”
    She may represent some cowboys nocternal emission, but I shudder to think that we’ve digressed down so far that she’s even being taken seriously by the Ultra-Conservative Lunatic fringe Yay-hoo’s.
    I always knew that the Right wing nut jobs were crazy, but to think that they would flock to Mrs.Palin like love-struck school boys is mind boggling…simply mind boggling!
    Alberto Escalante

  5. says

    I’ll never forget Sarah Palin’s introduction on the national stage. Truth be told, I was more than a little puzzled as to why the GOP would think her an asset to the ticket. The moment she opened her mouth at her first campaign stop in Dayton, Ohio, I could only think of one thing:

    Sally Field as “Gidget”.

    When someone like Sarah Palin can make it as far as she has, it can mean only one thing and it’s not a particularly good sign: we are living in a culture that has been custom-tailored for idiots. When a person who can barely put two coherent sentences together without the aid of a teleprompter becomes one of the best-selling non-fiction authors of the decade, that’s usually a pretty good indicator that society is spiraling downward at a fairly decent clip. Fasten your seat belts, kiddies!

    I had always believed that Monty Python alumni Michael Palin was the funniest person in the world to bear that name. In fact it should be stated for the record that the two Palins are equally funny. The only difference is that Michael works very hard at it. Sarah’s funniness, on the other hand, is purely accidental. The woman is a scream; the Buster Keaton of unintentional comedy.

    And now she’s revving her engines, getting ready to become the forty-fifth president of the United States. Already there are throngs of pundits out there who are saying that she’s dreaming; that she’ll never get the nomination – but stranger things have happened….

    On second thought, let me correct myself: nothing that strange has EVER happened. Not in all American political history has anything as remotely weird as that ever happened. I don’t believe it’s even come close to happening. Fascist Barbi becoming the standard bearer for a major political party? Come to think about it, it is probably a bit of a long shot. Oh, but what fun that would be! Can you imagine?

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

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