Political X-isms

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Comedians and cartoonists continue to have fun with Sarah Palin's use of refudiate, and her Shakespeare-citing defense — here's Jeff Danziger's editorial cartoon for 7/20/1010:

As I've written many times, I'm not a fan of pouncing on linguistic "mistakes", whether they're regionalisms, slips of the tongue, malapropisms, or individual idiosyncrasies. Nit-picking your acquaintances' speech is obnoxious. And this is worse, if anything, when it becomes part of the pack-journalism stereotype for a public figure, as it did in the case of George W. Bush, where (in my opinion) a combination of regionalisms and a folksy rather than intellectual manner made him a convenient target.

Unsurprisingly, there's an on-going attempt to transplant the journalistic weed of Bushisms to the arguably less fertile soil of our current president's public discourse: a web search for Obamaisms turns up quite a number of collections of alleged "dumb quotes and gaffes".  The results are even less impressive, in my opinion, than the Bush-oriented collections were. As I wrote about the Bushisms industry ("You say Nevada, I say Nevahda", 1/3/2004):

You can make any public figure sound like a boob, if you record everything he says and set hundreds of hostile observers to combing the transcripts for disfluencies, malapropisms, word formation errors and examples of non-standard pronunciation or usage. It's even easier if the critics use anecdotes based on the perceptions and verbal memories of equally hostile listeners.

Reporters, pundits, comics, and cartoonists have largely ignored the whole "Obamaisms" concept, in favor of various other empirically vacuous pack-journalism memes ("Obambi", "Chicago thug", "narcissist", "aloof elitist", etc.).  This is probably not because Barack Obama makes fewer verbal slips than George W. Bush did — I think that it's an open question which way the count would go, if anyone bothered to check. Part of the reason for low Obamaisms-meme uptake may be his generally standard dialect and his typically formal style of speech. Some of it may be overall X-isms fatigue. And there's also an overall (and historically strange) alignment of political stereotypes, as "dumb hicks" on the right vs. "aloof elitists" on the left, which tends to lower the memetic fitness of the whole Obamaisms concept.

From Sarah Palin's first emergence on the national political scence, comics, cartoonists, pundits (and even scholars) have focused on  various salient regional and class characteristics of her speech. Some of the previous LL posts on the subject: "Palin's accent", 10/1/2008; "'Too reform also' vs. 'number united understand'", 10/3/2008; "Affective demonstratives", 10/5/2008; "Verbage", 10/20/2008; "Bebop language?", 11/16/2008; "Sarah Palin's distal demonstratives", 4/9/2010.

The fact that she talks in ways that are noticeably different from typical national radio or TV announcers, along with the previously noted hicks-v.-elitists opposition, is probably enough to guarantee that people will continue to notice (and sometimes poke fun at) her speech. It's less clear to me what effect this will have on her political fortunes. My impression is that the Bushisms business was a comfort to W's enemies, but was mostly irrelevant to his fans, and didn't have much effect on those in the middle — except perhaps when his popularity plummeted and a certain amount of political piling-on took place.


  1. marybeth said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    Do we now mock Danziger for misquoting Hamlet with "I knew him well"?

  2. Mr Punch said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    Palin's case is not at all the same as Bush's. When Bush (Andover, Yale, Harvard) spoke in "a folksy rather than intellectual manner," it was seen by his critics as an affectation, or as an expression of affirmative anti-intellectualism – a sign that he was, if you will, a boob by choice. Palin, who really does come from the backwoods, is I think being cast as actually dumb/poorly educated, and with the Shakespeare thing as culturally pretentious. Palin is seen as a stock American character; Bush was not.

    [(myl) Bush 43 went to public school in Midland TX through 7th grade, and then went to a Houston private school for two more years, before starting Andover at the age of 15 or thereabouts. He seems always to have regarded Texas as home, and went back there to work and for the start of his political career. So even though he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, in an "old money" family whose roots are in New England, he comes by his regionalisms honestly.]

  3. a said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

    @ Mr. Punch:

    Can you back that up? I always got the impression that people thought Bush actually was stupid, not just pretending.

  4. Mark P said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Anyone can be made to look like a fool if you let him talk long enough. But Sarah Palin seems different to me. A transcript of one of Obama's or Bush's unprepared statements would probably look pretty incoherent, but I wonder how hard it would be to get a good impersonator to make a verbatim repetition of one of them sound like a professionally-written comedy parody.

  5. Rubrick said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

    While I agree that much mistake-pouncing is obnoxious and ill-motivated — and above all, badly researched — it's surely the case that some people really are better, clearer, more effective speakers than others. What is the proper way to evaluate or critique this?

    [(myl) There are all sorts of ways to evaluate verbal facility, whether we call it something positive ("clear, effective speech") or something negative ("glibness"). But in the current context, there's another question, which is how much any such evaluation should matter.

    No doubt political planners prefer candidates who are effective speakers (and who are good-looking as well). It's less clear how important such characteristics ought to be to us as voters. I'm prepared to consider arguments about relations between clear language and clear thought — and like anyone else, I'm impressed by rhetorical facility. But in non-political contexts, I know plenty of clear thinkers (and writers) who are nearly incoherent as extempore speakers. So I'm skeptical that I ought to assign a very high weight to a difference in ad lib glibness between two politicians, however we measure it. And when we measure it anecdotally, my skepticism increases.]

    I note that this blog has consistently denigrated this sort of "Palin is a hack speaker" potshotting, but has freely (and, I should say, entertainingly) engaged in very similar "Dan Brown is a hack writer" potshotting. I'm curious what the LL folks consider the difference to be. (I mean that sincerely; I can think of a lot of differences myself.)

    [(myl) I'll let Geoff Pullum and other LL literary critics speak for themselves. But one obvious difference is that we "hire" writers to write for us, and so we feel entitled to evaluate the quality of what we get for our investment of money and time. In contrast, quality of extemporaneous speech is several steps down the list of qualities that I value in a politician.

    One other difference is that writers are not generally taken to represent conflicting "parties", and therefore are not likely to be attacked for "partisan" reasons. (I admit that there are some aspects of literary movements and genres that are somewhat like this, but it's a minor aspect of the situation, I think.) In the case of politicians, most linguistic potshotting comes from political opponents and is therefore even more suspect on empirical grounds than it would be otherwise.]

  6. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    Part of the reason for low Obamaisms-meme uptake may be his generally standard dialect and his typically formal style of speech. Some of it may be overall X-isms fatigue. And there's also an overall (and historically strange) alignment of political stereotypes, as "dumb hicks" on the right vs. "aloof elitists" on the left[.]

    I really can't help but point out the elephant in the boardroom: There's a lot of baggage that comes with white people making fun of African-American speech that just isn't there for white people making fun of other white people (even Southern white people). Obviously many of Obama's enemies won't care, but as long as a Tea Party spokesman can still be dumped for racially insensitive comments, this still matters.

    [(myl) Indeed. See here, here, here, etc.]

  7. jim said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    But hey, she was the one who compared herself to Shakespeare…

    It'll be over soon, but I'm enjoying this.

    I was trying to think of a Shakespeare quote to fit this, but I got nothing.

  8. Bloix said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

    " I'm not a fan of pouncing on linguistic "mistakes", whether they're regionalisms, slips of the tongue, malapropisms, or individual idiosyncrasies."

    Shakespeare, on the other hand, thought that linguistic mistakes were hilarious. If Shakespeare had written a female Dogberry, he would have named her Palin.

    [(myl) Ridiculing — especially of fictional characters — is different from "pouncing".]

  9. Bloix said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    "But in non-political contexts, I know plenty of clear thinkers (and writers) who are nearly incoherent as extempore speakers."

    How do you know that they're clear thinkers, then? Oh, from their writing. Well, yes, there are people who can think clearly when they have time and solitude, but are unable to do so in real time under even moderate pressure. I don't think you can call such people "clear thinkers."

  10. HP said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    GWB's and Palin's disfluencies may or may not be affected (my guess — innate, but exaggerated), but given that populist anti-intellectualism is currently the domain of the Republican Party, I doubt that an articulate, thoughtful, and nuanced Republican could win a party primary anywhere in the country. That is, in the current political alignment in the USA, being disfluent is a political advantage, at least in the short term.

    [(myl) In a broader cultural context, there have been some other situations in which disfluency was viewed as a positive and even necessary sign of high social status.]

    I am sometimes astonished at the short memories of so many of my contemporaries, who seemed to have somehow missed out on the massive political realignment that's occurred over the last 30 years. When I was a boy, populist anti-intellectualism was strongly correlated with Dixiecrats and pro-Labor Dems (remember them?), and guess which politicians were the most folksy and least fluent?

    [(myl) This is more or less what I meant by calling this alignment of politico-linguistic stereotypes "historically strange".]

    I know this is a language blog, but I don't think you can disentangle language and politics in this particular instance.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    I am one of those "unclear speakers" (unless I am well-prepared) who is usually considered to be a clear writer. I know plenty of people who are quick to come up with answers, but what they say is not always worth listening to, or it might make sense on the spot, but not after some reflection. There are also very fluent speakers whose writing is a disappointment. Reaction speed is not always an indication of quality.

  12. PF said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

    Refudiate v. [rifiudiat] fr. re- again; fud n. Scot. or Northern English dial. the rear end or scut of a rabbit or hare; -ate verb making suffix, to make or become. fudiate v., to make or become the rear end of a rabbit or hare; refudiate v. to make or become the rear end of a rabbit or hare again. “She continues to refudiate herself.”

    Sarah: Dost thou infamonize me among potentates? Thou shalt die. [Love's Labours Lost 5.2]

  13. Mark P said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

    HP, I was just thinking recently that some Democratic candidates and office-holders in Georgia in the past 20 to 40 years were actually pretty decent progressives, at least for Georgia, while I would be hard pressed to name a true progressive in either party today. Even those with mild progressive tendencies have to hew to what they call a conservative line. "Liberal" is literally treated as a dirty word. I don't recall much appeal to anti-intellectualism until after Jimmy Carter's term as governor, and the appearance of the backward-bicycling, pick-handle-brandishing Lester Maddox.

    Of course until fairly recent times all politicians in Georgia were Democrats if they wanted to be elected. That's where the term "Yellow-Dog Democrat" came from. (Voters in the South would vote for a yellow dog as long as he was the Democratic nominee. They didn't forgive the Republican Party for Abraham Lincoln until the Republican Party forgot him.)

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    It's disappointing to find them casting Palin as Hamlet. The possibilities for Palin as Dogberry, Falstaff, Hotspur, or Lady Macbeth seem far richer.

  15. Daniel said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 6:54 pm


    I definitely think clear thinking is not synonymous with extemporaneous speaking skills. What about someone who stutters, or someone who is used to speaking in a different register? I find myself often flustered by my own verbal skills, with a clear idea in my head that I have difficulty putting into words.

    @Nathan Myers

    I think Hamlet was probably chosen because it probably is the most recognizable to the general public (maybe it's closest competition is Romeo and Juliet, but "To be or not to be?" is, I would wager, the most well-known line). Unfortunately, I don't even recognize most of the characters you mentioned.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

    Mark P may have his Georgia political history a bit out of sequence. In terms of how old the current partisan stereotypes and alignments are, it may be worth remembering that Adlai Stevenson was stereotypically perceived as the candidate of the "eggheads" when running unsuccessful Presidential campaigns against a notoriously disfluent fellow whose last pre-political job had been as president of an Ivy League university. Indeed, the transition of the Democratic Party away from its rough-and-tumble Jacksonian roots toward pandering to the egghead vote probably dates back to at least the candidacy of Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

  17. Kylopod said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

    @Daniel von Brighoff

    The first time I ever saw Obama was at his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Earlier the same night, I had heard Howard Dean speak, and I noticed that Dean used contractions a lot more than Obama, who spoke in a relatively formal, elevated manner (by modern standards). While I was listening to Obama, the thought crossed my mind that black politicians are more likely to overcompensate and avoid the kinds of speech habits that white pols cultivate to appear folksy.

  18. bloix said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    Daniel: Speech impediments aside, clear speaking can be learned by anyone who thinks clearly. But if you talk like this, you're not thinking clearly:

    The whole TARP thing. And we’ve spent like 25% and it was this grandiose save the day or whatever. And then people started to say, what? Where is the money, where is it going? Million dollar TARP money spent for some study on frogs, stupid stuff. So people started to realize that we got conned, and yet we are losing jobs.

    I don't see why we're not allowed to assume that people who talk like this might perhaps actually be idiots.

    Like Shakespeare, I think Dogberry is hilarious, and I don't feel the need to pretend that Palin is more entitled to respect than he is.

    [(myl) Some more grist for your mill is here.]

  19. bloix said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    Kylopod: Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for 12 years. At Chicago, as at most schools, con law is taught by the Socratic method, a mixture of lecture and close interrogation in front of a class of a hundred or more eager, extraordinarily bright young people. It's a performance art that requires a high degree of verbal dexterity and command of detail. Anyone coming in from the street would find the language in use in any first tier school's con law class to be relatively formal and elevated.

    Obama was a popular and respected teacher of con law. I expect it's that experience, rather than his race, that trained him to produce well-formed, grammatically correct, and logically meaningful sentences.

  20. bloix said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 10:41 pm

    myl – in the post you've linked to, Clinton was inarticulate on Social Security because he was hip-deep in negotiating a privatization plan with the Republicans that had the left wing of the Democratic up in arms. He was doing his triangulation thing and it was tanking. In the selection you quoted, the moderator had asked a question that, roughly translated meant something like this: "Now that your friends the reasonable Republicans have turned on you and want to impeach your sorry cheating ass, aren't you sorry that you've betrayed your base by proposing the destruction of the centerpiece of the New Deal?" His response was one cut above "a-bah, a-bah, a-bah…" He was vamping, saying gibberish because he was unable to say anything that wasn't either an obvious lie or an abject admission of failure. Now, maybe if he'd been Prime Minister, he'd have had enough Question Time experience to bluster through even that kind of question, but no U.S. president gets enough exposure to hard questioning to be able to connet with a fast ball like the one that Clinton wiffed. He sounded like he wasn't thinking clearly because, in fact, he wasn't.

    [(myl) Your analysis of the political situation in July of 1998 agrees, at least in broad strokes, with the way that I understand it. But I'd point out again that the context was not one in which the topic was raised unexpectedly. Rather, this was a town meeting specifically on the topic of what to do about Social Security, organized and scheduled and sponsored by the White House. I don't know whether the questions were screened in advance, but it doesn't matter, this question was completely predictable.

    I have a stack of other Clinton town-meeting recordings, and I'd say that pretty much all of them include passages like this one. I chose this town meeting as my source because it happens that in the middle of 2005, George W. Bush had been talking up social security privatization, and so it was easy to fool people into thinking that he was the speaker.]

    The difference with Palin and Bush is that even when they are speaking comfortably, to friendly audiences, on topics that are supposedly well within their areas of expertise, they sound like morons. WIth them, being stupid isn't a bug, it's a feature.

    [(myl) The attendees at this town meeting in 1998 constituted a friendly audience — the event was organized by the White House on a university campus, it was full of respectful silence and enthusiastic applause, etc. The topic was chosen by the White House because they thought it was important and perhaps also because they wanted to draw attention away from the scandal on which the president was then vulnerable. And SS reform is exactly the kind of policy wonkery that Clinton was well known for being on top of.

    So I feel that it's fair to criticize Palin and Bush for proposals that are bad for the country, and arguments that are misleading or incoherent or (if you will) stupid. But I'm skeptical of the view that you can conclude this on the basis of their speaking style, in any way that would reliably spare the impromptu rhetoric of people whose positions you like better.]

  21. Nathan Myers said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 12:28 am

    I'm all for judging public figures when they're at their best. While it's easy to find examples of people at their worst, it seems to me relevant whether they have anything but a worst. If not, I feel comfortable concluding from it that they may well be idiots.

    It's (said to be) easy to find examples of Clinton and Obama speaking extemporaneously and coherently, at length. I don't doubt that there are examples of Bush running on fluently. Has anybody identified any examples of Palin speaking clearly and comprehensibly for more than two sentences without a teleprompter or obvious heavy coaching?

  22. Sara said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 1:21 am


    There are plenty of people who may be extremely clear thinkers but terrible with words (either written or spoken). For example, physicists, engineers, musicians, or artists can produce brilliant work without necessarily providing any verbal or written communication. It's a little narrow-minded of you to only consider someone's intellectual output through the prism of language.

  23. bloix said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 7:45 am

    Sara -I take your point. When you show me Palin performing the Pathetique, or produce her most recent scholarly article, I'll modify my opinion. At present the evidence that comes to my eyes and ears is that she's dumb as a stump.

  24. Mark P said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    @J.W. Brewer – I think my sequence of Georgia politics is reasonably accurate, but i doubt that many others would be interested in an extended debate. If you exclude racism, there were several governors in the past 50 years who were progressive in at least some sense (at least at the time – Zell Miller was one, believe it or not). Today, even the progressives, as I said, must try to position themselves as conservatives. I don't see what Adlai Stevenson has to do with local Georgia politics, but the fact remains, Georgians voted Democratic until relatively recently because they hated the Republican Party.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    Mark P.: perhaps I misunderstood the salience of your earlier post to the general topic(s) of the thread. Does the history of Georgia politics (whether pre- or post-Maddox) provide any interesting illustrations of how a "folksy"/disfluent speaking style (and/or the populist anti-intellectualism it may imply) does or does not correlate to differences between Democrats and Republicans and/or between "progressives" and "conservatives," regardless of their party affiliations?

  26. Mark P said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    J.W. Brewer – My point was that in Georgia today, no matter where a politician's plans fall in the political spectrum, they all have to characterize themselves as "conservative." There is a distinct tendency to behave in a folksy manner, but not all do so to the same extent. The current governor (Sonny Perdue), who many believe won because the previous governor removed the Confederate stars-and-bars portion of the state flag, ran a very folksy campaign. He talked about his "Sonny do list" for when he was elected. I don't recall any running today who do a real "aw shucks" routine, and not many get into enough detail to approach the common perception of Sarah Palin's speech patterns. And yes, I do mean that they (usually) talk in less detail than Palin, except when they are attacking someone for not being anti-gay.

    The former governor is now running again. Some of his ads might be interpreted as attacking the politics of folksy stupidity in the current state government in favor of at least a little more thoughtful approach. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

  27. John O'Toole said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    I am a bit flummoxed here by Mr. Liberman's/LL's linguistic take on this question. Has it led to a fundamental paradox, an aporia? LL rightly takes to task knee-jerk, often superficial criticism of politicians' inevitable disfluencies and nonstandard usages. LL has also rightly pointed out in many posts that in today's world, most formal speech by said pols is largely, if not entirely, written by someone else. And finally, the link between linguistic fluency and the intelligence of the speaker is, granted, not necessarily borne out by research. So, Mark, and LL in general, how is one to decide, after some thought and research, that a given pol is or isn't a moron who is unfit for elected office? Surely a good part of a pol's job involves their ability to wield language to convince, cajole, persuade a majority to back their proposed way of running things or a staff to execute their decisions. Are we left in Ms. Palin's case with analyzing her unguarded tweets, say, assuming they aren't produced by someone else? Her book(s)? Partly or wholly ghosted, no? Surely edited by a competent eggheadish person. Seriously, is there a tipping point at which disfluency does suggest something about the speaker's ability to think clearly, if not deeply, about a political problem, since we are talking about a politician?

  28. Joyce Melton said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    @myl Your defense of Bush and Palin's inarticulations misses a point. Clinton and Obama do misspeak on occasion, and sometimes the criticism of Bush and Palin is unfair. But I've never heard Palin deliver a coherent speech on any topic and Bush frequently commits verbal chop suey.

    It's a matter of proportion and timing, not simply degree. And I'm a Republican. Bush the Elder and Ford were sometimes ridiculed for misspeaking and Joe Biden takes his whiffs at the tee-ball, too. But Bush and Palin practically define political word-salad.

  29. Mark Liberman said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

    John O'Toole: So, Mark, and LL in general, how is one to decide, after some thought and research, that a given pol is or isn't a moron who is unfit for elected office?

    A careful evaluation of their policy proposals, their arguments for those proposals, and their record would be a good place to start. If their policies are uniformly foolish and their arguments are all incoherent — and not just badly expressed in some ad libbing situations — then "a moron who is unfit for elected office" would be a reasonable description.

    John O'Toole again: Surely a good part of a pol's job involves their ability to wield language to convince, cajole, persuade a majority to back their proposed way of running things or a staff to execute their decisions.

    This is true, and it's why verbal facility should be on the list of desireable characteristics. But frankly, if I don't like someone's goals and policies, then I'd just as soon they weren't good at "wield[ing] language to convince, cajole, persuade" others to agree with them.

  30. Jose M. Blanco said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    Sometimes we just need to kick back and enjoy the humor. The cartoon is quite funny.

  31. John O'Toole said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    So, Mr. Liberman, for you as a linguist at no point does a pol's use of language enter the picture? I say this since policy proposals and a pol's arguments for them, at least in writing, are often drawn from the work of others and in not a few instances penned by others. A politician's political record cannot be the work of someone else–it would be very quickly ferreted out and denounced. And by way of counterargument, one could point to the records of Lincoln and Obama, both thinnish in terms of elected office before their election to the presidency, yet both men are fine examples of deft presidents. In any case, your answer is a bit disappointing because I, and I suppose many LL readers, _knew_ that already (shame about the italics), knew that what you suggest is a "good place to start." What's the language hook in all of this? What, for example, is the difference between "incoherent" and "badly expressed in some ad libbing situations," especially given that said policies are usually written up by a hired gun? Is there no disfluency, or even quantity of disfluencies, that ever tells us something about the ability, the acumen, the intelligence of a pol? That's one of the kinds of questions I was hoping you would tackle as a professional language researcher.

  32. Mark Liberman said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    John O'Toole: "So, Mr. Liberman, for you as a linguist at no point does a pol's use of language enter the picture?"

    For me as a linguist, use of language is of course always in the picture. But I try to maintain some reasonable standards of evidence about things like whether Barack Obama uses the first-person singular more often than other recent presidents, or whether George W. Bush is unusually disfluent.

    And as a citizen, I try to keep such issues in perspective.

    John O'Toole: "What's the language hook in all of this?"

    For me, this has mostly been a matter of reaction to media reaction, and evaluation of media commentary, when linguistic issues come up in the media.

    John O'Toole: "What, for example, is the difference between 'incoherent' and 'badly expressed in some ad libbing situations,' especially given that said policies are usually written up by a hired gun?"

    I agree that it's often hard to tell the difference. But one still exists: a coherent argument that may be badly expressed is in fact different from an argument that's fundamentally incoherent, even if it's expressed in a glib way.

    Of course we would all prefer coherent positions expressed clearly.

    John O'Toole: "Is there no disfluency, or even quantity of disfluencies, that ever tells us something about the ability, the acumen, the intelligence of a pol? That's one of the kinds of questions I was hoping you would tackle as a professional language researcher."

    There can be many reasons for someone to speak badly off the cuff, whether in a particular instance or frequently or even always. At one extreme, someone with schizophrenia or Wenicke's aphasia or other serious brain dysfunction is likely to produce bizarre and confused discourse, whose details would be part of the basis for a diagnosis; and needless to say, such people are not good candidates for public office. In cases that are more likely to be encountered among active politicians, unimpressive extemporaneous speaking might result from fatigue, lack of preparation for discussing a topic, difficulty in dodging a difficult question, general lack of skill at off-the-cuff speaking, substance abuse, and so on. Impressive off-the-cuff speaking might reflect innate eloquence and mastery of content, or just memorization of relevant talking points. The distribution of rhetorical skill levels, and of explanations for them, will depend on the individual and the circumstances.

    This is not very helpful, I know, but I don't think that there's a magic formula that we can apply to recordings or transcripts in order to get reliable indications of politically relevant quantities.

    There are certainly modes of analysis that may be of interest — we can ask about the distribution of particular words and phrases, or classes of words and phrases; we can look at word frequency distributions; sentence length; various measures of sentence complexity; speaking rate; density of filled pauses, self-corrections and other disfluencies; use of semantic and rhetorical structures; and so on. We can look at pronunciations, word choices and turns of phrase that are marked for region, class, or ethnic group. We can look at levels of formality and choice of style. What do these things mean from a political point of view? Well, sometimes nothing, and sometimes a lot.

  33. John O'Toole said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    One last frayed length to this thread: Thank you, Mr. Liberman, for taking the time to answer at length, but once again, longterm readers of LL already know the things you point out, thanks to your and your colleagues many intelligent previous postings. No, something else was bothering me. I think it has to do with an impression one might get from reading LL regularly. I think that your and your colleagues’ instincts are to go for the meatier, more instructive story and, in this category (usage, incorrect or no, ridiculed), that almost inevitably means turning your linguistic lights on the person or persons doing the ridiculing and revealing how baseless or wrongheaded or clichéd the ridicule is. Such arroseur arrose (accent aigu on that final ee, thank you) analysis is great fun to write no doubt and to read, is unfailingly insightful and very instructive, and provides a real service to the general culture and the body politic (if only more people would read LL!) But apart from poor hapless and terribly wealthy Dan Brown, what original producer of disfluency (inept speaker or writer, for heaven’s sake) has been given the LL deluxe treatment? Strunk and White do not count since they claimed to tell others how to wield proper English—and made a complete bollocks of it. No one comes to my mind. I’m sure I’m wrong. The juiciest posts and even the majority of posts size up the secondary actors, the people who take others to task or make claims that are not borne out by facts. This is always great fun and very very educational. On the other hand, it can give the impression that any criticism of a disfluency (other than from the unstoppable keyboard of D. Brown) is doomed to fail, to raise the LL eyebrow and draw the gleaming LL scalpel. There is a laudable reluctance to call a twit a twit for linguistic reasons, but that also has its real-world repercussions, which are worth thinking about. That’s kind of what I was hoping to see you grapple with.

    A last word about Danzinger’s cartoon, he did the same basic bit of readymade formulaic humor with Ebonics back in 1997 (see “Chillin’ in Ebonics with My Main Man Hamlet”). The idea obviously is to play low speech off high but it doesn’t work, for me at least, ‘cause there isn’t anything really novel about it. Now when Andy Borowitz gives the following mock headline, “Palin Says Refudiate Appears in Fictionary,” things are starting to look up in terms of humor.

  34. HP said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

    Man, I was internetless for a while, and then distracted. So it took me a while to come back here. Thanks to MYL for the glosses; the link on high-status Wolof disfluency was brilliant. Everyone go read it now.

    It does seem, from reviewing the intervening thread, that my original assessment that language cannot be disentangled from politics in this case is confirmed.

    Even though my own partisan politics tend toward progressivism, I wonder what an Onion- (or Laugh-In-) like "News of the Past" would look like if this post were rewritten as a comparison between, say, Orval Faubus and Lyndon Johnson.

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