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John McWhorter's Silly Analysis of 'Palinspeak'

John McWhorter has an analysis of "Palinspeak" at The New Republic that has gotten quite a bit of attention. As a trained linguist (by happenstance I was a PhD candidate at Cornell, where McWhorter taught, before switching to journalism), I think his take is refreshingly devoid of cliché alarmism over the "decline of the English language." McWhorter makes the interesting observation that the style of political speech has shifted from the rigid scripted performances of politicians like Warren G. Harding to a more casual, unprepared style.

But McWhorter goes too far in providing a psychological profile of Sarah Palin based on her linguistic tics. He writes:

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.

The evidence McWhorter provides for this assertion is that Palin uses "distancing words" -- that instead of this or the, there instead of here:

Palin frequently displaces statements with an appended “there,” as in “We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there...” But where? Why the distancing gesture? At another time, she referred to Condoleezza Rice trying to “forge that peace.” That peace? You mean that peace way over there — as opposed to the peace that you as Vice-President would have been responsible for forging? She’s far, far away from that peace. … This reminds me of toddlers who speak from inside their own experience in a related way.

Even if Palin in fact prefers certain definite articles or adverbs over others (it's hard to tell from two sentences), it's quite a stretch to conclude that her use of "that" and "there" are indicators of her deep psychology, reflecting an inability to speak about the world in a third-party, objective sense. The underlying premise to McWhorter's argument -- that using "distancing words" indicates an inability to speak from "outside of one's experience" or makes one like a toddler -- is absurd.

Also, as a pure point of grammar "this" and "that" are not only indicators of proximity. They also serve as "discourse markers" -- words that make reference to the conversation itself. If you look back at the exchange in which Palin says "forge that peace," she is talking about the Bush administration's effort to bring peace to the Middle East -- it's the general topic on the floor. The word "that" could just as easily refer to the overarching topic, as in "forge the peace that we are talking about." But even if she is referring to peace as something "over there" -- which, let's face it, the Middle East is -- within four sentences she says "forge these peace agreements." Did Palin suddenly grow up? Get out of her own head? Probably not.

My argument might seem nitpicky, but the greater problem with McWhorter's type of analysis is that it gives an air of scientific credibility to what is, at heart, a personal prejudice. Left-wing blogs jumped on the piece not so much because his argument was convincing but because it confirms what we already believe: namely, that Palin is an intellectual infant who is unaware of the world around her. But there are a lot of substantive things to criticize about Palin without resorting to psycho-profiling based on pronoun use. At a time when our political discourse is more than ever all heat, the job of journalists and commentators is indeed to shine a light there.

-- Gabriel Arana

Cross-posted from TAPPED, the group blog of The American Prospect.


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