Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Palin's accent and syntax

We finally have a serious sociolinguist addressing Palin's speech: This piece quotes Rosina Lippi-Green at some length (h.t. to Mike L, passed on by Joe.)

In related news, Katharine Seelye of the NYT has a piece today called
Past Debates Show a Confident Palin, at Times Fluent but Often Vague.
That header calls to mind Mark Liberman's recent Palin-McCain-inspired call for "a disfluency index — or better, a vector of qualities related to fluency and coherence — that could be used to put the field of political babble-ology on a sound footing."

Anyway, Seelye writes that Palin's earlier debates showed these traits:

Her sentences were distinguished by their repetition of words, by the use of the phrase “here in Alaska” and for gaps. On paper, her sentences would have been difficult to diagram.
Well, if you want"difficult to diagram", on paper or otherwise, a couple days ago I heard a blurb for NPR's business show about the bailout, asking "when and will" a solution be reached. (The syntactic analysis aside, the phrase is familiar and doesn't even sound so bad to me, but it triggered a look of horror when I bounced it off the missus.)

A common view is that normal speech represents one big verbal train wreck, but it's worth noting that not everybody sees it that way. In his seminal "Logic of Non-standard English" (available here via Google Books), Labov says this, based on his own work with 'everyday speech':
the great majority of utterances in all contexts are complete sentences, and most of the rest can be reduced to grammatical form by a small set of editing rules. The proportions of grammatical sentences vary with class backgrounds and styles. The highest percentage of well-formed sentences are found in casual speech and working-class speakers use more well-formed sentences than middle-class speakers. The widespread myth that most speech is ungrammatical is no doubt based upon tapes made at learned conferences, where we obtain the maximum number of irreducibly ungrammatical sequences.
There's a lot buried behind that quote (like arguing against Chomsky on 'poverty of stimulus', see footnote 11), but maybe it means that we need a general field of babble-ology! Who'll endow the first chair?

Image from here.


Rosina Lippi said...

First: I hate blogger. It just ate a long comment that I don't have time to reconstruct.

Short version: There's an embarrassment of riches for anybody who wants to criticize Palin. I think the woman's a disaster. But i wish the media would stop mocking her accent and syntax. They sound like petty, gleeful, superior... (dare I say it?) elitists. I'm about ready to write Olbermann a letter. I agree with him almost 100 percent across the board on the issues, but his style (especially in situations like this) drives me nuts.

Mr. Verb said...

Sorry about blogger -- that's not the first time. (I used to respond to most comments but that's not possible these days, and losing one occasionally doesn't help.)

I'm not sure there's much to mock in her syntax. A commenter on the Log yesterday (or recently) made the right point, I think, and Seelye makes a similar one (if memory serves, which is a bad bet): She's kind of doing a lot of hesitation stuff to buy time, but I don't find much remarkable or mockable on that front.

I've been sort of wondering about the impact of this kind of mocking on voters. Presumably it hardens some of them in their anti-elitist views.

Vance Maverick said...

I like "when and will". Sounds like a contraction of

When will X happen?
And will X happen?

simply dropping out the repeated part. A zeugma.

Rosina Lippi said...

Olbermann went to town on Palin when she responded to a question she couldn't answer (one of the many) with a perky 'I'll get back to ya!')

The fact that she can't name a Supreme Court decision (for example) is deserving of some mockery (in my opinion); the accent is not.

Anonymous said...

Well, the content of what she says is so scary that I can't laugh about much of anything.

I say we beat them severely at the polls, then laugh all we want. Well, if the country hasn't been ENTIRELY destroyed by the time Bush leaves office.