Readers ponder the speech of Sarah Palin.

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Oct. 10 2008 11:12 AM

Sentences to Nowhere

Readers ponder the speech of Sarah Palin.

Kitty Burns Florey's attempt to diagram Sarah Palin's sentences was a hit this week. Even before Tina Fey's dead-on impersonations brought attention to the VP candidate's tortured linguistic style, language itself was already a campaign theme, starting with Hillary's famous declaration during the primaries: "You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose." After the frequent attacks on Obama's "lofty" (and, therefore, supposedly empty) rhetoric, Sarah Palin's syntax is in some respects just the latest to come under scrutiny.

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If diagramming was intended as the most neutral and objective way to decipher meaning in Palin's speech—a candidate who has elicited enormous curiosity since her introduction to the national stage in September—Ischua dismisses the diagramming exercise as "petty partisan parsing."

kaboku68, a schoolteacher from Chitina, Alaska, writes in to say that "[w]e have a different form of syntax. … Alaskans often have elements of the indigenious [sic] languages of … Alaskan Natives involved in their speaking patterns" (a claim contested vigorously by Fritz Gerlich).

For WetHen here, the debate format may have had an effect:

Palin's object was to only sound decisive, matching her punchy delivery method to that of Biden's forceful style. The words -- they didn't matter. Anything that sounded like a word would do as long as she didn't pause, didn't sound thoughtful, didn't break pace.

northwoods describes the VP candidate's "Joycean stream of consciousness" as a generalized condition among politicians, who "never mind the meaning … fill up time so that the questioner is defeated and time runs out."

In ConcernSimian's assessment, Palin's "florid, babbling ideation" is tantamount to what psychiatrists might call a "word salad." But ezames warns against any such pathologizing:

the little I've read about linguistics suggests, counter-intuitively, that the coherence and diagramability of [Palin's] speech aren't reliable indicators of her intelligence or clarity of thought. Chomsky's notion that language isn't the product of some sort of general intelligence, but of a specific module in the brain, is generally accepted today.

JerseyInsuranceGirl wonders, should Palin get elected, how translators will revamp and interpret her sentences in foreign languages. Scotboy56 gives it a try, and "with a few judicious uses/changes of punctuation, and one reordering of words," manages to make the Palin quote "read perfectly":

I know that John McCain and I, as his vice president, will do that. Families, we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20. That will be. Our top priority is to defend the American people.