I'm going to venture to disagree with my colleague and friend John McWhorter's diagnosis of "What does Palinspeak mean?" (TNR, 4/6/2010).
Of course, I don't disagree with John's observation that Sarah Palin's speech style is folksy and informal. As for his comment that "Palin […] 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", we could quibble over details — how much of the difference is in what public figures say, as opposed to what gets transmitted and reported? — but let's grant that John is right about this as well.
Where I think that John may go wrong is in his analysis of that and there.
Now, there's no doubt that Sarah Palin tends to use certain demonstratives more often than most other public figures, and also tends to use them in a different way. In "Affective demonstratives", 10/5/2008, I noted differences as great as 15-to-1 between her and Joe Biden in the 10/4/2008 vice-presidential debate. Her demonstratives often seemed qualitatively as well as quantitatively different, in characteristic examples like "Americans are craving that straight talk". Straight talk was John McCain's slogan, but "craving that straight talk" was pure Palin.
Here's John McWhorter's diagnosis:
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 there fetish, for instance — 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.
All of us use there and that in this way in casual speech — it’s a way of placing topics as separate from us on a kind of abstract “desktop” that the conversation encompasses. “The people in accounting down there think they can just ….” But Palin, doing this even when speaking to the whole nation, is no further outside of her head than we are when talking about what’s going on at work over a beer. The issues, American people, you name it, are “there” — in other words, not in her head 24/7. She hasn’t given them much thought before; they are not her. They’re that, over there.
But there's another set of reasons for using that and there — not to signal distance from the referent, but to establish fellowship with the audience. The OED's entry for that as a "demonstrative adjective" sketches the cause and the effect:
1. a. The simple demonstrative used (as adjective in concord with a n.), to indicate a thing or person either as being actually pointed out or present, or as having just been mentioned and being thus mentally pointed out. […]
b. Indicating a person or thing assumed to be known, or to be known to be such as is stated. Often (esp. before a person's name: cf. L. iste) implying censure, dislike, or scorn; but sometimes commendation or admiration.
Similarly in the entry for there:
3.b. Pointing out a person or object with approval or commendation, or the contrary. Also in anticipatory commendation of the person addressed; cf. THAT dem. pron. B. I. 1b.
When Frank Sinatra sings about "that old black magic", or about "Chicago, that toddlin' town", it's not because the magic and the city are "that, over there", things that he "hasn't given … much thought [to] before". On the contrary, they're a familiar part of his mental life, and by treating them as "assumed to be known" to the audience, he draws us in as well. Similarly, Billie Holiday's reference to "them there eyes" is a form of endearment, not a distancing mechanism.
Of course, as the OED's entries indicate, familiarity can also signal contempt, as in the case of Ronald Reagan's famous line "There you go again".
John's reaction shows that he gets the implication of shared familiarity:
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.
But using distal demonstratives as a rhetorical device to imply familiarity is an entirely grown-up trick. The phrasal lexicon of adult discourse is full of collocations like "that good old American ___".
In the vice-presidential debate of October 2008, Sarah Palin's first turn included this passage (emphasis added):
The barometer there, I think, is going to be resounding that our economy is hurting and the federal government has not provided the sound oversight that we need and that we deserve, and we need reform to that end.
I doubt that any other prominent American politician would have thrown in that semantically superfluous there. But its force is not to distance Palin from her resounding barometer, prudent though it might have been to do so. Rather, this verbal tic is an attempt to draw us all in to her metaphor. The barometer, you know, the one we're all familiar with, that good old barometer there.
She goes on:
Now, John McCain thankfully has been one representing reform. Two years ago, remember, it was John McCain who pushed so hard with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform measures. He sounded that warning bell.
We all know the warning bell she's talking about, right? That one over there, always in the back of our shared experience.
People in the Senate with him, his colleagues, didn't want to listen to him and wouldn't go towards that reform that was needed then. I think that the alarm has been heard, though, and there will be that greater oversight, again thanks to John McCain's bipartisan efforts that he was so instrumental in bringing folks together over this past week, even suspending his own campaign to make sure he was putting excessive politics aside and putting the country first.
So yes, Sarah Palin uses distal demonstratives more than other public figures do, and she often uses them in different ways. This is partly a folksy regionalism, and partly a personal quirk, but contrary to John's analysis, it's not because
The issues, American people, you name it, are “there” — in other words, not in her head 24/7. She hasn’t given them much thought before; they are not her. They’re that, over there.
On the contrary, it's because she's welcoming all of us into the familiar space of that good old American experience there.
[Hat tip to Cynthia McLemore.]