Dissin' Sarah

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I agree with Politico's John Harris and Jim Vanderhei that the charges of media bias against the McCain campaign are exaggerated. On the other hand, no one ever went broke overestimating the media's capacity for offhand condescension, as witness these excerpts from the transcript that ABC published of Elizabeth Vargas' interview with Sarah Palin:

ELIZABETH VARGAS: If it doesn't go your way on Tuesday … 2012?

GOV SARAH PALIN: I'm just … thinkin' that it's gonna go our way on Tuesday, November 4….

… PALIN: Absolutely not. I think that, if I were to give up and wave a white flag of surrender against some of the political shots that we've taken, that … that would … bring this whole … I'm not doin' this for naught.

PALIN: Well, I think that people can … can read the comments and hear the comments that he made, because again, the, the refreshing thing about that tape being revealed … from 2001… it's candidness there. It's not … it didn't seem to be his typical scripted, kinda … rhetorical message read off a TelePrompter.

Now you wouldn't expect the transcribers to photoshop Palin's anacolutha and false starts (though I don't think the public's need for full information would be compromised if they cleaned up a repeated "the" here and there). But do they imagine that Palin is the only one of the candidates who drops a g now and again, much less says kinda for kind of or gonna for going to? And if you want to hear condescension compounded, listen to Wolf Blitzer having a Tina Fey moment as he reads from the Vargas interview transcript and dutifully drops Palin's g's where indicated.

It's true that Palin works her g-dropping for effect, as I noted in an earlier post. But then so do Biden, Obama, Hillary Clinton, and even McCain on occasion. And even if she's more ostentatious about it than they, there's no call for rendering it in transcriptions. It's a device that suggests speech that's uneducated or nonstandard, akin to eye-dialect (e.g., writing sez for says and wuz for was). And in its small way, it seems to confirm the right's picture of elite media types who look down on ordinary Joes (Sixpack, Blow, or Plumber, as the case may be).

In this connection, Bill Labov has observed that our perception of variable processes like g-dropping is categorical: when people do it a little, we don't perceive it; if they do it a bit more, they seem to be doing it all the time. Which may explain ABC's heading for one video segment: "Palin: 'Not Callin' Out Obama." As it happens, though, when you listen to the video, it turns out that Palin didn't actually drop the g on calling.

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23 Comments »

  1. jo said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 5:12 am

    Is analcolutha a deliberate departure from anacolutha? I had never heard of either before, but it made me smile this morning.

  2. Yuval said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 5:39 am

    analcolutha?
    Is this a pun?

    [GN: No, I'm not that clever -- it was a typo.]

  3. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 11:18 am

    Doesn't this assume that writing the transcript in this way is unwanted by Palin and that other guy she's running with? You've pointed out that Palin is usin' her g-droppin' for effect — why wouldn't she want that effect continued? To some (and I take it you're in this category, Geoff), emphasizing how she speaks makes her seem uneducated (or that people are trying to make her appear so). To others — and I think to the people she's tryin' to reach out to — this signifies her separation from the the highfalutin, Ivy-league, elitist, entrenched politicians in Washington who are completely out of touch with the common (wo)man.

    I would love to know if McCain/Palin has commented on how these transcripts were prepared. I wonder if they might have even asked her how she wanted her speech rendered.

  4. Rich B. said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 11:34 am

    There's been a lot of comment on writing "gonna" for "going to," but it seems to me that it makes complete sense where it isn't a regional accent, but a different usage — especially when a usage is only used for one meaning of the word.

    People who say "gonna" only do it when they mean "will in the future," not when they are referring to a physical destination.

    I'm gonna go to the store.

    But:

    I'm going to the store. (Not "I'm gonna the store.")

    I understand that its a problem to transcribe dialect, but if a person is saying "going to" in one context and "gonna" in another, it makes perfect sense to transcribe them differently.

  5. Noel said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 11:58 am

    I'm just waiting for the day "gonna" makes it into the dictionary.

    "Gonna" should get the recognition it deserves. Changing a person's utterance of "gonna" to "going to" is changing what the person said. The phrases sound totally different and are used in different contexts. Plus, you want to capture the way the person actually speaks.

    [(myl) But more important, you want to take at least a brief look at how the world actually is, before sounding off about how it should be. "Gonna" is already in the OED, the AHD, and Encarta, among any number of other dictionaries.]

    As far as dropping the g's off of -ing words, a lot of people already do this, and it isn't really necessary for transcription purposes. It starts to sound condescending, considering that you don't transcribe other people's speech with such scrutinizing detail.

  6. Joe said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    I don't think that 'g' dropping makes her look uneducated (though exchanges like "What magazines do you read?" / "All of them." do), but that may be because I grew up in the rural Midwest. And I don't have the same reaction to "new-kyoo-ler" as city folk, either. I believe I already mentioned how I used that pronunciation until my college physics TA corrected me in class.

    Honestly, the real bias against her would be the sexism over her clothes. I don't like Palin at all, but I had to admit that that was sexist. Just as Palin's comments about Hillary Clinton were, as you can see from that old Daily Show clip.

    Anyhow, I just hope that she vanishes from the news after the election. If she actually runs in 2012, I'm going to have to write in "Miss Teen South Carolina" instead.

  7. William F Dowling said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

    Is it time to resurrect the old vaudeville joke?
    – Do you like Palin?
    – I don't know. How do you Pale?
    (It was just as stupid with "Joplin".)

  8. Alex J said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

    My friend from Alaska made a good point that separation of people creates language differences. British English and American English differ in significant ways due to separation of people. Alaska is really far away from the lower 48 and smaller differences are starting to appear because Alaska is more in the public eye since Sarah Palin has been on the political stage.

  9. James Kabala said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 11:03 pm

    It used to be very common for newspapers and magazines (1950s and earlier) to include dropped gs and suchlike in transcripts of interviews with white Southerners and blacks – two groups who may not have liked each other very much at that time, but who were joined as recipients of condescension from the New York-based media. To read an old interview with Elvis Presley or Patsy Cline is to witness an apostrophe-fest. Of course, many of the people quoted in that way really did drop their gs a lot, but newspapers naturally fell prone to exaggerating it in some classes of people and ignoring it in others. I remember Bob Gibson writing in his autobiography about the anger he felt at a Sports Illustrated article that quoted him at length in what Gibson described as "Uncle Remus dialect." Fortunately this practice seems to have mainly stopped, with some exceptions like the one above.

    In a way, selective g-dropping in transcriptions is perhaps even more regrettable than in the past. I suspect (although I can't prove it, and maybe I'm wrong) that people like FDR or Thomas Dewey really did drop their gs rarely, at least on public occasions, but it seems as if most of today's prominent politicians, even people like Dick Cheney or John Kerry who are rarely accused of it, do it a quite bit. To single out Palin as the only one is absurd condescenion on ABC's part, but probably explained by Labov's theory.

  10. James Kabala said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

    Dowling: There have also been non-g-dropping variants of that joke (e.g., one with Rudyard Kipling). Perhaps you could even do it with Dowling. Have you ever dowled?

  11. Bill Muir said,

    October 30, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

    @ Andy:

    Well, you may be right that the McCain camp (or the Palin camp, as I hear they're separate camps now) wouldn't mind the perception that Governor Palin is a world (or at least a goodly chunk of world) apart from Obama's Harvard-Socialist-smartypants eloquence, or whatever you want to call it. She is supposed to be a maverick, after all, and talking like Samuel Huntington's granddaughter wouldn't serve her well politically. Well, it wouldn't fit what McCain seems to want her to do at any rate.

    But I think what the campaign thinks doesn't really matter vis-à-vis what Geoff seems to be saying about the media. The only plausible explanation I can think of for their transcribing comments that way is that they're trying to bludgeon the Republican ticket with every weapon they think they have. Frankly I've heard my fill of all of this (I voted yesterday), and I don't think the media as a whole are unduly biased in either direction, since they are after all multiple media, and really thousands of different outfits with their own agendas. But I can tell you that I would only go out of my way to preserve little disfluencies and such like that if I were trying to suggest something about the speaker. Actually, having worked as a transcriptionist, I have literally done that… well in the end, I don't think it will make a difference, unless a great many undecided voters have some truly bizarre prejudices in common.

  12. rkhd said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 12:18 am

    "People who say "gonna" only do it when they mean "will in the future," not when they are referring to a physical destination."

    And when people are referring to a physical destination they say "goina". At least, that's what me and many of peers say:

    "Where you goin'?"
    "I'm goina the store." "I'm goina play golf."

  13. Joe said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 2:25 am

    > The only plausible explanation I can think of for their transcribing comments that way is that they're trying to bludgeon the Republican ticket with every weapon they think they have.

    Given that it's ABC, I think they do that to everyone. (I'm not sure how many watched the primaries enough to notice that, though.)

    There's also the possibility that people only bother to transcribe it when it's really noticeable. After all, anyone might drop a g once or twice. But lots of them? The less fluent a speaker was, the less I'd be inclined to correct them. In any event, I honestly never would've noticed this whole thing if someone hadn't pointed it out.

    When I worry about the quality of someone's ideas, I look at the ideas themselves. Not whether they speak with a dialect. I had some very smart professors who weren't English. One liked to pronounce the word "pivot" as something closer to "pervert" (pee-vurt, to be more exact). I didn't doubt their knowledge because of it. When I doubt Palin's intellect, it's not because she sounds funny. I grew up in the Midwest. Lots of people spoke like her in one way or another (especially "new-kyoo-ler", which I have used, in spite of having taken classes that covered nuclear physics in college).

  14. Mark P said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 9:17 am

    As a Southerner I have experienced at least a little prejudice because of the way I sometimes talk. On the other hand, if I were on the national stage running for VP, I would speak differently from the way I do to my friends at home. That Palin apparently doesn't indicates to me either that she is naive or that she does it intentionally because it helps her present an image that she wants.

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 9:42 am

    Mark P: …if I were on the national stage running for VP, I would speak differently from the way I do to my friends at home. That Palin apparently doesn't indicates to me either that she is naive or that she does it intentionally because it helps her present an image that she wants.

    The point here is that someone at ABC made an editorial decision to transcribe Gov. Palin's remarks with "-in'", the spelling "gonna", and so on.

    Other politicians, including Barack Obama and Joe Biden, routinely say "gonna", use the so-called "g-dropping" forms, and so on; but (as far as I can tell with a quick web search), ABC has never transcribed their remarks in a way that indicates this.

    So the issue is not the choices that Sarah Palin made, but the choices that ABC made.

  16. Noel said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 10:00 am

    I should have been more specific. "Gonna" is not in the Merriam-Webster dictionary I have to use for copy editing at work, which is frustrating.

  17. Mark P said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    MYL: I understand that the point is the transcription of Sarah Palin's spoken words. But experience indicates that we should not expect much more from the media. The news media are sheep, and in this case they seem to be following comedians. I read into this more about lack of professionalism than anything else, like overt political bias. There is also some elitism, and probably a lack of self-awareness. It also says something about who the media consider to be acceptable targets for their condescension, or ridicule.

    A case could be made that the media should report a about a candidates speech patterns if it indicated something about his qualifications, but in this case it's just a dialect.

    But Palin cannot be unaware of how her speech is treated in the media, so the question occurred to me whether she is playing the media. If she changed at this point, I suspect that a lot would be made of the change itself. Some of the media have reported that Barack Obama speaks differently to different groups, so I'm sure any changes Palin made would be reported along the same lines.

  18. Lisa Chensvold said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

    My comment does not address the issue of whether ABC's transcription is an example of media bias agains the McCain campain.

    I think the choice to transcribe the words as she pronounced them, dropping "g's," "gonna" for "going to," etc., is appropriate and even necessary in the context of an analysis of a speech. In that case, the "performative" aspect of the text is equally important to it's substance and meaning, and failure to transcribe the words as they were delivered would be an important omission.

    It's not unlike a musical transcription that accompanies the analysis of a particular performance. If I were analyzing a Bing Crosby performance of "White Christmas," and my musical transcription rendered a single note for the word "I'm" in the opening phrase, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas," my transcription would be not only insufficient, but inaccurate. Crosby sings "I'm" with his signature warm and lazy scoop up to the "correct" starting note, and that should be reflected in the transcription.

    I guess it's a matter of debate whether media discussion of Palin and her stump speeches qualify as "performance analysis."

  19. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

    @Joe:
    If you're referring to the fuss over her $150,000 spending spree at the RNC's expense, I don't think that was sexist. After all, the Republicans attacked Obama for looking like the GQ candidate and criticized John Edwards for paying $400 for a haircut. The point of such attacks is to portray the opponent as elitist. Palin, after all, is being presented (and has presented herself) as a folksy, down-to-earth, hockey mom type who knows what Joe Six-Pack is all about, and that image hardly squares with spending all that money at Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

  20. James Kabala said,

    October 31, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

    Lisa: If they did that way for everybody, it wouldn't bother me, but they don't, and in fact, as Dr. Nunberg points out, they imagine it when it didn't really happen. I also think an interview is different (because less prepared) than a speech.

  21. Tom said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 8:42 am

    And when people are referring to a physical destination they say "goina". At least, that's what me and many of peers say:

    "Where you goin'?"
    "I'm goina the store." "I'm goina play golf."

    Now, certainly you know best how you and your peers say it. But the rendition I always hear is more along the lines of "gointa" or even "goinda."

  22. GAC said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    I thought you were going to mention the term TelePrompter there. I had always assumed that the version with capital letters had a sort of derogatory effect (like use in blogs of "Sternly Worded Letter" — sometimes with a trademark tag). It wasn't until just now looking it up that I find out that there was actually a brand-name "TelePrompTer".

    Don't know what Effect or Illusion that one is, but I guess it's one of them.

  23. Forrest said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 8:07 pm

    I'm not sure there's any good reason to think this is media bias … as opposed to, say, ineptness?

    People can speculate all day long about whether more Americans who plan to vote will dislike people who speak in anything but The Queen's English (using GAC's "Sternly Worded Letter" effect) or elitists who don't speak like them. You could plausibly say that Palin is dropping her g's for effect ("linguistic slumming") and the newspapers are helping her convey that aspect of her message. Or, that they're trying to portray her as unintelligent, unable to use language. You can find bias either way, depending where you look for it.

    But the main point, that news outlets should either transcribe exactly what gets said, or edit it, is a valid one. Whether this is bias or incompetence, the lack of consistency is the problem.

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