Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Straight Talk? Depends on Who's Listening

thinks that the biggest divide in this country is not political but linguistic. I think she has a point. And I totally disagree with Camille Paglia's assessment of those who, like me, think Palin is an idiot.
Straight talk? Depends who's listening

The U.S. is separated between red and blue, liberals, conservatives but the deepest rift might be linguistic
Nov 01, 2008 04:30 AM

Special to the Star

"You betcha." "Doggone it." "Say it ain't so, Joe."

Quick: How did you respond to reading those earthy, down-home phrases uttered by John McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, on the U.S. campaign trail? Do you find them disarmingly cute and endearing? Or does the very sight of them make you utter aloud a few unprintable words of your own?

Note that we haven't given you one option: indifference. That's because Palin's "down-to-earth" vocabulary and easy cadence is a lot like a facial tattoo, say, or vegemite, or Paris Hilton – it is likely to set off a strong reaction, whether it inspires crescendos of affection or spasms of disgusted mockery.

It's no secret that it is during election years that America often appears most sharply divided. As it respond to the usual barrage of polls and surveys, the U.S. seems less like part of the fabled "melting pot" we're often told it is and more of a – dare I say it? – mosaic.

Or a battleground. Election campaigns reveal deep schisms – between red and blue states, coastal and "fly-over" communities, rural and urban voters, and black and white constituents.

But, added to the lines drawn by race, gender, geography and class, could there be another, quieter split that defines the way Americans will vote when they head to the polls this Tuesday – a language divide?

Though it might not seem so to watch American television, where most traces of regional accent tend to be carefully excised from the general English used by news anchors and actors, the country is populated by a multitude of different dialects.

Some linguists identify at least three major groups that define the way Americans speak; others insist there are 24 distinct varieties – or more.

So a voter might be a Midwesterner, like the peeved University of Illinois student who slammed Palin's "gosh dern golly-gee" debating style, writing in his student paper that her informal diction "may be okay to say in casual talk among friends, but not when you're talking to the nation... Just because people aren't from Wall Street doesn't mean they stopped at sixth grade."

But go a little further south, and you might find rural voters talking about Palin as someone they could gab with around the coffee table.

"What happens in this scenario is things are so ideologically divisive that people either can't stand to hear her speech or love her speech," says professor Walt Wolfram, an expert on sociolinguistics at North Carolina State University. "It's a reflection of the political divisiveness that now exists."

People who hate the way Palin talks are more apt to judge her as incompetent or lacking intelligence, he explains.

"There is a sense in which people are biased and do make judgments of competence based on speech style," he says. "In Sociology 101 we claim that speech style has nothing to do with intelligence. But people do judge that."

It's that perceived judgment that she sounds "dumb" that Palin's defenders have worked to counter.

In a glowing appraisal of Palin's language, iconoclastic author Camille Paglia has gone so far as to say that: "People who can't see how smart Palin is are trapped in their own narrow parochialism – the tedious, hackneyed forms of their upper-middle-class syntax and vocabulary."

She likened Palin's idiosyncratic speaking style to Shakespeare's experiments with wordplay – which may make some sense when you consider vivid, if perhaps unintentionally poetic phrasings like her "white flag of surrender" soundbite against ending the Iraq war or her recent assertion that a McCain-Palin administration would have no intention of "bleeding our authority" over the legislative branch.

Indeed, her debating made Paglia admire "not only her always shapely and syncopated syllables but the innate structures of her discourse."

Palin the poet? Perhaps. Certainly a relaxed way of speaking can often benefit a candidate, rather than hurt her – depending on the way voters tend to speak themselves, and how they view a candidate in other ways.

"You can still use folksy language and be smart – Obama does, and Bill Clinton did, and Hillary Clinton did," says Agnes Bolonyai, an expert in linguistics who is also from North Carolina State.

Gone are the days when presidential addresses, heard over the radio, were expected to contain words that you might have to look up in the dictionary. Today, when preparing for a campaign, politicians learn to supplement their conversational style with words and phrases that show they're "one of the people" – whether it's Barack Obama, who has gradually replaced the word "people" with "folks" over the course of his campaign in order to soften perceptions that his cool, elevated Ivy-League diction is out of touch with voters, or John McCain, who regularly addresses supporters with a familiar "my friends."

The fact that the language divide often seems to coalesce along other deeply entrenched lines, such as that separating the poor and the rich, provides a clue to Palin's almost immediate appeal for some. When poor, blue-collar voters in Ohio were interviewed by The New Yorker's George Packer about which candidate they liked, many agreed that Palin "fit in" with them; she seemed like someone they would like to invite over. Even though the governor of Alaska is decidedly not poor and appears in Neiman Marcus suits, it seems she is able to seem to "fit in" because of the folksy way she speaks.

It's a trait that Palin has in common with another group – salespeople.

"Here in North Carolina, I can't think of a commercial for a car dealership that doesn't use a southern dialect," says Wolfram. "Those varieties tend to connote honesty and all that sort of bulls---t that they use to try to counteract car dealer stereotypes."

Indeed, Palin's earthy talk is partially the creation of a New York voice coach, according to a recent report.

Wolfram points out that race, geography and class can play a large role in how one profits from ultra-casual language, however. He points out that any attempt by Obama to sound more "urban" or "street" during the months when he was accused by some of not sounding authentically black would have likely hurt him immensely in America's war zone of racial politics.

Palin may have (now notoriously) asserted that: "I may not answer the questions the way moderator wants to hear, but I talk straight to the American people" during her debate.

But it's only "straight talk" depending on what sort of American people – south or north, rich or poor – are listening.

No comments: