Bebop language?

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Dick Cavett recently called Sarah Palin "The Wild Wordsmith of Wasilla" and "the serial syntax-killer from Wasilla High". He worries that "ambitious politicos" will learn "that frayed syntax, bungled grammar and run-on sentences that ramble on long after thought has given out completely are a candidate’s valuable traits". Peter Suderman, more specific if less witty, complains ("Sarah Palin speaks!",11/12/2208 ) that "I do not know what this means":

… massive leverage by everyone from consumers who bought houses for nothing down to hedge funds that were betting $30 for every $1 they had in cash a world economy that is so much more intertwined than people realized which is exemplified by British police departments that are financially strapped today because they put their savings in online Icelandic banks to get a little better yield that have gone bust globally intertwined financial instruments that are so complex that most of the C.E.O.'s dealing with them did not and do not understand how they work especially on the downside a financial crisis that started in America with our toxic mortgages …

Oops, sorry, that was a portion of a sentence from Thomas Friedman's latest column, "Gonna Need a Bigger Boat", with the punctuation removed. The passage that Peter Sunderman complained about was this:

Sitting here in these chairs that I’m going to be proposing but in working with these governors who again on the front lines are forced to and it’s our privileged obligation to find solutions to the challenges facing our own states every day being held accountable, not being just one of many just casting votes or voting present every once in a while, we don’t get away with that. We have to balance budgets and we’re dealing with multibillion dollar budgets and tens of thousands of employees in our organizations.

The quoted passage is from Sarah Palin's interview with Wolf Blitzer, at the recent Republican Governors Association. Suderman got the quote from a post by Kevin Drum ("What just happened", 11/12/2008), who in turn seems to have gotten it from a transcript posted at The Page.

Unfortunately, this transcript is a poor one, and in particular, it makes some remarkably tone-deaf punctuational choices. This transforms into gibberish a spoken passage that's entirely coherent, if full of the appositives and parentheticals and false starts that are common in extemporaneous speech.

Let's take a closer look at the conversation, step by step. Wolf Blitzer asks Gov. Palin for her "new ideas on how to take the Republican Party out of this rut that it's in right now"; and she tries to shift the focus back onto the Republican governors in general, who "have really good ideas for our nation because we're the ones there on the front lines being held accountable every single day in service to the people whom [sic] have hired us in our own states"; and Blitzer interrupts and tries again to get her to make some specific, personal, and newsworthy proposal ("Does that mean you want to come up with a new Sarah Palin initiative that you want to release right now?"), and she responds (click on the link for an audio clip):

Ah, nothing specific right now, sitting here in these chairs, that I'm going to be proposing; but-

She starts with a noise that's unexpected coming from a national politician being interviewed on CNN — the transcript renders it as "Gah!", and maybe that's the right choice, though "Ah" looks more dignified, and maybe it's actually "Yah". But aside from this, there's nothing linguistically suprising so far.

Trying again to shift focus back to her fellow governors, she continues:

… in working with these governors — who again on the front lines are forced to (and it's our privileged obligation to) find solutions to the challenges facing our own states every day …

Her plan is clear — she means to say that in working with her fellow governors, she's heard a lot of good ideas. But then she gets tied up in a series of supplementary clauses of praise for the governors, and a hinted dig at Barack Obama, and then more clauses of praise:

... being held accountable, not being just one of many just casting votes or voting present every once in a while, we don't get away with that, we have to balance budgets and we're dealing with multibillion dollar budgets and tens of thousands of employees in our organizations, that executive experience that every governor has and must have uh being put to good use now as we work together AS governors to help reach out to Barack Obama's administration uh being able to um help him make good decisions based on the solutions that we already seek.

And now she's forgotten that her sentence started as a subordinate clause ("…but in working with these governors, who …"), so she just gives it up without ever getting to the main clause. This is a mistake, and one that a more experienced public speaker might have avoided. But it's neither incoherent nor especially uncommon.

And she does remember that Blitzer wanted some kind of policy proposal from her, so after the long litany of praise for her fellow Republican governors, she tacks on a bit of her personal agenda:

For me specifically of course, energy independence that is doable here in this country, we have the domestic solutions because we have the domestic supplies.

This is not a very persuasive policy proposal, based on what I read about the calculus of petroleum supply and demand. And it's not a complete sentence — like Bush 41 and many other public figures, Govenor Palin often speaks in noun phrases — but it does ends with a rhetorically praiseworthy and syntactically well-formed slogan, even if that slogan's policy recommendation is at best controversial.

Daniel Larison almost gets it ("Cracking the code", 11/12/2008). He writes that "What we have to do … is decrypt her message by filtering out all of the confusing chatter that keeps her statements encoded and difficult to follow", where by "confusing chatter" he mostly means the parentheticals and false starts.

But the thing is, almost everyone's natural speech almost always needs some of this sort of editing.  Consider this passage from an earlier president's town hall discussion of social security privatization ("Trends in presidential disfluency", 11/26/2005):

Would um would the g- uh would- and I think- but I think most people just think uh if the risk is gonna b- if there's gonna be a risk taken, I'd rather take it than have the government take it for me, I don't think it's very complicated, so I think that those who believe that- that it's safer and better for people to have the public do the investment, or the government do the investment, have the- have to bear that burden.

That was William Jefferson Clinton, who has been called "with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, the most effective public speaker as president since Franklin Roosevelt".

I wouldn't go as far as to praise Sarah Palin's public speaking style as Camille Paglia recently did, writing that Gov. Palin "uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist". But I'll agree with Paglia that

Liberal Democrats are going to wake up from their sadomasochistic, anti-Palin orgy with a very big hangover. The evil genie released during this sorry episode will not so easily go back into its bottle. A shocking level of irrational emotionalism and at times infantile rage was exposed at the heart of current Democratic ideology — contradicting Democratic core principles of compassion, tolerance and independent thought. One would have to look back to the Eisenhower 1950s for parallels to this grotesque lock-step parade of bourgeois provincialism, shallow groupthink and blind prejudice.

[…] So she doesn't speak the King's English — big whoop!

I expressed some similar sentiments in an earlier post ("Verbage", 10/20/2008):

I don't agree with many of Sarah Palin's political views … But I think it's a catastrophic and unnecessary mistake to throw her into the linguistic briar-patch as a representative of those who have a provincial accent, sometimes use stigmatized idioms or non-standard pronunciations, and don't speak in well-polished paragraphs.

… If you set up a political choice between the people who talk like Sarah Palin and the people who talk like James Wood, guess who wins?

But I also believe that it's also morally wrong to try to win an argument by making fun of non-standard speech and lack of formal linguistic polish.

Alas, after several hundred words defending and praising Sarah Palin, Prof. Paglia somewhat subverts herself by tacking on a note about her keynote lecture for the Theodore Roethke Centenary Conference, which she summarizes this way:

I'm sick of the insipid bourgeois neuroticism in current, careerist American poetry. Bring back the psychotics!

I might be able to get behind that, depending on what kind of craziness she has in mind. But in national politics, I have to say that I'd just as soon go with some sanity for a while.

[William Ockham correctly points out, in the comments below, that linguistic snobbery directed at Sarah Palin has come from every point on the political spectrum. But after several centuries in which the right played the role of "elitists vs. ordinary people", a new political story-line is assigning this role to the left, who therefore have more to lose by method-acting the part with such verve and gusto in this particular drama. ]


  1. William Ockham said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 6:07 pm

    There is one fundamental problem with your equation of Paglia's defense of Palin with your own. The political types screaming the loudest about Palin's speaking style are on the right. James Wood and Dick Cavett are pop culture snobs. Their political leanings are irrelevant to their snobbery.

    Peter Suderman is a right-winger. Kevin Drum's post was about the substance of her views, not her grammar or speaking style. Larison is anything but a liberal Democrat. I believe he self-identifies as a libertarian. The most vicious petty attacks on Palin come from the right, not the left. In fact, the really risible stuff comes from unnamed sources inside the McCain campaign. So pardon me if I don't buy Paglia's narrative that a 'shocking level of irrational emotionalism and at times infantile rage was exposed at the heart of current Democratic ideology'. Especially when I have seen plenty of clips of what Palin unleashed at her rallies.

  2. Will Keats-Osborn said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 8:49 pm

    If we agree that linguistic snobbery comes from all points on the political spectrum, and linguistic snobbery is a symptom of irrational emotionalism that obscures the fact that Sarah Palin is smart (which she is, in certain ways), is it fair to call irrational emotionalism and infantile rage "worn out partisan dogma"? Didn't Paglia build her career on these kinds of dogma?

  3. Teresa G said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

    I think you are focusing too much on defending Palin's grammatical skills, and thus missing the point inherent in the criticism of how she speaks.

    The problem is not that she is overly ungrammatical (she isn't) or that she meanders (she does, and so does everyone), it's that she uses a blizzard of words to obscure that she has nothing contentful to say. It's like reading freshman compositions–the ones written by relatively bright students who use an unintentional parody of academese in their writing, believing that lofty words and convoluted phrases are the whole point of the exercise.

    Her output is also quite astonishingly like what a mid-range NLP program might construct as output–strings of mostly grammatical phrases linked tenuously together to mimic human speech but lacking any consciousness. Reading the governor's interviews with Gibson and Couric, I was struck by how Palin's responses seemed as if they could have been generated by a pattern-matching chatbot. If you have spent any time playing with Alice and her ilk, you might see what I mean. Essentially I would argue that the candid interview soundbytes from Governor Palin don't pass the Turing test.

    Thus it is a false comparison to evaluate her grammaticality relative to Clinton's. While I agree with your characterization of natural speech as inevitably composed of false starts and abandoned constructions, and further agree that Palin is no worse in this regard than most people or even most politicians, these issues are not, I think, what really bug most of her critics. But since her critics are not linguists, they often lack the tools to accurately describe what they are offended by. They may incorrectly use terms like "ungrammatical" and such when what they are really trying to get at is the feeling that much of her speech is untethered to human thought. More so than most politicians even.

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

    As a practitioner and admirer of bebop, I wish people (yes, Jack Kerouac, I'm looking at you) would stop using it as a metaphor for complete, structure-free spontaneity. Play three choruses of bebop–your choice of instrument, scat-sing if you prefer–on the chord changes of "Joy Spring" or "All the Things You Are" and then we'll talk.

  5. HP said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 9:46 pm

    This is not the post I was expecting when I saw the title.

    For what it's worth, there is a particular verbal style associated with the bebop musicians of the post-war period that's worthy of investigation for its own sake. It's not just the hipster slang (cf Harry "the Hipster" Gibson), but a particular style that mixes jazz slang and Black vernacular with exaggeratedly florid and technical speech. It's pretty far removed from Sarah Palin's (artificially?) plain-spoken style.

    "And now we would like to play a tune by my worthy constituent, Mr. Dizzy Gillespie, composed in the year nineteen hundred and forty-nine. We surely hope you do enjoy . . . 'Salt Peanuts.'" — Charlie Parker, Massey Hall, Ontario, 1953.

    I saw a concert by Benny Golson about ten years ago where he held forth with at least five minutes of verbal pyrotechnics while introducing a tune.

    Lord Buckley famously appropriated this style for his comedy monologues.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

    @rootlesscosmo & @HP: I've added a question mark to the title, to indicate that Charlie Parker and Sarah Palin would probably be taken aback to be compared to one another.

  7. Mark P said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

    While I agree that virtually everyone could be made to look stupid if their unscripted speech were transcribed (especially if it were transcribed maliciously), I do think that Sarah Palin's public speech is an indicator. I believe that anyone's speech is an indicator, at the very least of what's going on inside their heads. In her case, I think it indicates a of lack of experience in public speech, plus a belief that she can wing it, in speaking if not in other things. It might indicate more, but that's a matter of opinion.

    As for Camille Paglia's assessment of criticism of Sarah Palin ("A shocking level of irrational emotionalism and at times infantile rage was exposed at the heart of current Democratic ideology") all I can say is, that sounds a lot like projection to me.

  8. Dmitri said,

    November 16, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

    When I hear Palin speak, I get the sense she's trying to sound impressive. It would be one thing if she gave straightforward answers, perhaps with some verbal infelicities, a few "ums" and "ahs," some hesitations and mis-starts. But what she does is ramble on, as if she's imitating the rhythm of sophistication, without the content.

    I really don't think this is a reflection of my political views, or my elitist bias. There are lots of not-formally-educated people who still manage to sound like they know what they're talking about. Palin, to my ear, sounds like she's bullshitting — trying to fill space with meaningless chatter.

  9. Blake Stacey said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 12:13 am

    Paglia's praise of Palin's intelligence called to my mind one of Spider Jerusalem's choice phrases to describe the aptitude of a particular politician: "the wolfen street-fighting instinctual smarts of the Beast".

    Setting aside whatever disfluency Gov. Palin may or may not have exhibited, and even brushing off the "Say it ain't so, Joe!" folksiness, there was still the content of her remarks: the jabs at "fruit fly research in Paris, France", the stark ignorance of climate science. . . You could rephrase it in the most stately blank verse, or replace every "You betcha!" with an epigram of Churchillian wit, and it would still be an ideology of wilful ignorance.

  10. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 12:20 am

    I'm impressed that a careful parsing reveals Governor Palin to be speaking more or less comprehensible English. I remain unimpressed by Governor Palin herself. And I consider the ridicule of her syntax to be just a misdirected expression of a completely justifiable disgust with her. I'm sorry, but it doesn't break my heart to see her being mocked for the wrong reasons.

  11. Blake Stacey said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 12:37 am

    By Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything, including mockery of a political candidate, is crud. Odds are, even a person who holds a more justifiable disgust for said political figure will be making shallow, trite and/or superficial attacks a large fraction of the time. What one might find legitimately bothersome is when someone chooses to criticize this fraction of the discourse while making an equally superficial dismissal of the substantial complaints.

    Of course, I have my own opinions on when and where this is happening, but I should probably better avoid a full-on episode of SIWOTI syndrome and go do something better with my evening.

  12. Bloix said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 2:05 am

    But don't you see? She said that the Republican governors have new ideas. What are they, she was asked. Instead of answering, she praised herself and sneered at Obama. She didn't give any new ideas. Her run-on sentence placed enough time between the question and the supposed answer that a particularly idiot listener might have forgotten the question. That at any rate seems to be the point. The long windup might have been unobjectionable if she had finished with some actual new ideas, but she didn't – because she doesn't have any. It's actually a euphemistic dodge to criticize her syntax and grammar. The real problem is that she believes that she can fake her way through any question.

  13. nony said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 4:08 am

  14. sidereal said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 4:09 am

    " If you set up a political choice between the people who talk like Sarah Palin and the people who talk like James Wood, guess who wins?"

    I think that was demonstrated recently.

    Voters actually like their elected representatives to be coherent, and the implication otherwise is not only inaccurate, it's so inaccurate as to make its contemptuous delivery all the more inappropriate.

    And the continued implication on this blog that the criticism of Palin's speech is completely groundless is frankly bizarre. Palin uses word salad to obscure lack of knowledge. It's the lack of knowledge that people are reacting to and the word salad the proximate mockable evidence.

  15. JanetK said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 6:31 am

    I have wondered why transcript writers cannot be given a pause sign/s like the rest signs in music. They would then no have to guess at the correct punctuation but instead let the reader do that, but with the reader having some clues as to how the speaker said the words.

    [(myl) This is a good idea. I've notated pauses in transcripts of some passages discussed in earlier posts, e.g. "Biden's comma, 2/1/2007. But I don't think that it would help much in this case, because one genuine flaw in Gov. Palin's speaking style is that she tends to run the end of one clause into the beginning of the next one, prosodically speaking, apparently pausing only when she runs out of inspiration or breath.]

  16. Alan said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 7:19 am

    Dmitri: "But what she does is ramble on, as if she's imitating the rhythm of sophistication, without the content."

    I think you've hit the nail on the head here. Palin's manner of speech reminds me of nothing so much as the high school principals, borough council members, and other similar small-town functionaries I've met and dealt with. This isn't a comment on her mayoral past; it's simply that this kind of speaking — dressing up a few simple and ill-thought-out basic points in a mass of circumlocutions, filler phrases, and slightly misused "advanced" vocabulary — is one I've encountered most from people who were either in positions of authority, or attempting to sound like they were.

    The plural of "anecdote", famously, is not "data", but my own experience suggests very strongly that this is a style of speaking used by people who are trying to come across as (for lack of a better word) authoritative, but lack the rhetorical skill and/or actual competence to bring it off.

  17. ShadowFox said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    One problem with Paglia's defense of Palin is that it conflates several kinds of criticism. I've seen comments that assert that

    A) Palin is just stupid
    B) Palin is uneducated
    C) Palin has a folksy way of speaking (a regional dialect, of sorts) that may or may not have been intentionally exaggerated to appeal to the less-educated Republicans (same appeal that Bush supposedly had)
    D) Palin rambles on, stringing together bunches of unrelated thoughts, run-on sentences and convoluted distractions
    E) Palin is just ignorant of facts and makes them up as she goes along, often losing track of her thought

    I also wonder if the transcripts are often so poor because her speaking style sometimes lacks punctuation in her speech. The pauses, interruptions and voice and tone variations fail to correspond t phrase and sentence markers.

    As to Paglia's attack/defense–she essentially makes a version of accusation that is associated with (A) and (B), but applies it to (D) and (E). For example, I have heard people rebutting attacks on Palin's ignorance with, "You just don't like her small-college jacket." This is nonsense, as is Paglia's defense.

    Palin does not seem to lack ability to communicate in speeches, even if these may be short on (accurate) fact and are even folksier than her interviews. Her ability to speak in coherent sentences shows up in spontaneous situations and in conversations that she has with other people. This is a mark that is common among political leaders, but is especially common with conservatives. My own experience on this front involved Abigail Thernstrom who is always hyper-prepared and very eloquent when she follows talking points on an issue that's been agreed to in advance, but completely falls apart and dissembles when asked an unexpected question. This is why people of this sort are highly praised as being smart and insightful by a partisan crowd but appear to be complete fools to political opponents. The partisans never get to see the dissembling and tend to believe that the questions that contradict the dogma are patently unfair.

    So we can likely agree that Palin is 1) folksy, which does not say anything about her intelligence, 2) exhibits certain kinds of intelligence (certainly she has sharp political instincts that put her in the position of rapid advancement–e.g., she smelled an opportunity created by Frank Murkowski's nepotism and ran a fairly solid campaign to become governor), 3) is adequately educated, irrespectively of the college brand, but 4) she is ignorant on broader issues and issues of public interest (something that is often labeled as intellectually uncurious), 5) is highly undisciplined in her interactive speech, and 6) is often stubborn in her ignorance.

    Conflating the unfair criticism based on ignoring (1)-(3) with fair criticism based on (4)-(6) is not helpful.

  18. josil said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

    And then there is the vice-president…

  19. Simon Musgrave said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 6:54 pm

    Well, it may not quite be bebop, but Palin's speech style has been set to jazz:

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

    @Simon Musgrave: …wow…

  21. Smitty said,

    November 17, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

    Heh, you should try to analize LA's mayor Villaraigosa speaking.

  22. Bloix said,

    November 18, 2008 @ 12:17 am


    Nothing specific right now.
    Sitting here in these chairs
    that I’m going to be proposing


    in working with these governors who
    again on the front lines
    are forced to
    and it’s our privileged obligation
    to find solutions
    to the challenges facing our own states
    every day
    being held accountable,
    not being just one of many
    just casting votes
    or voting present every once
    in a while, we don’t
    get away with that.

    We have to balance budgets
    and we’re dealing with multibillion dollar budgets
    and tens of thousands of employees
    in our organizations.

  23. Ruling Imagination: Law and Creativity » Blog Archive » If you can’t say it clearly, you aren’t thinking it clearly. said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 12:03 am

    […] I suppose I'd qualify Mr. Pullum's statement in one way — where there's incoherence, there rarely are sensible thoughts, even allowing for the ungrammatical nature of a lot of spoken language, […]

  24. Martin Wisse said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 3:14 am

    You're over analysing (here? No!). Don't look at transcripts: listen to Palin's speeches, then listen to people generally thought to be good speakers and learn the difference.

    The supposed snobbery shown Palin and Bush earlier isn't based on transcripts; it's based on video footage of these great idiots mangling the English language.

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