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.

Not bad. Do you have a more coherent take? Consult the original here and then post your translation in "The Good Word" Fray. AC11:20 a.m. ET

Tuesday, Oct. 7,  2008

We love it when the post titles tell the story. The Swedish Academy speaks on why Americans don't win Nobel Prizes for literature, Adam Kirsch puts the case for homegrown fiction, and readers get to comment on all of it. A quick scan of the "Culturebox" board gives the following posts: U.S. writers robbed by Nobel Committee; most Nobel literature is boring; good to know America isn't the only place with bigots; Nobel nordicentrism; MFAs killed American literature; Europe is finished, anyway ("skinny French women … will all be in burkhas"); Danielle Steel.

Danielle Steel? By no means is she the only author who has been omitted from the prize-giving, thanks only to the sheer prejudice and anti-American feeling of the committee, apparently. But we would still challenge readers to guess what name is going to come after these words from Bec393: "[T]he only living American writer worthy of a Nobel nom is ..."—go and see, prepare to be surprised (maybe).

Bjoern Staerk says America's greatest contribution to literature is science fiction and goes on:

But then literary fame is not about justice. I've given up counting the number of wonderful authors I've come across by accident, only to find out that they're utterly forgotten and ignored. Perhaps the real problem with the Nobel Prize and other awards is that they give readers the illusion of knowing who the greatest authors are. The odds are that the world's greatest author wrote one promising book which didn't sell well, then gave up writing for a paying job.

There's a nice defense of Dario Fo by thelyamhound, who tackles liberalism in the same post:

As far as the politics go, the fact is that since the beginning of time, artists tended, overwhelmingly, to be "liberal" in comparison to the dominant social flavor of their respective eras. What exactly that meant must be taken in relation to the era in question, but the notion that there's suddenly some "liberal bias" to art is nonsense--not because there's not a bias, but because there's nothing new about it. If conservatives want more art, they should raise more artists ... but don't be surprised if the industry turns them (if nothing else, gays have always been disproportionately represented in creative fields, and while gays aren't reflexively liberal, they tend to be so on social matters, at the least).

Readers were keen to discuss the merits of Philip Roth and Toni Morrison along with the some less obvious names: According to B-Real, "We'll see Bob Dylan get the medal before they give it to some guy who sees fit to make biting commentary about the horrors of modern America from his monastic abode on a farm in Connecticut." (We think that would be Mr Roth.) Everyone had a dog in this fight, but Mikerol gets a mention for the most heroic nomination: In his view, Austrian writer Peter Handke "would deserve [the Nobel Prize] even if he raped his grandmother, just for the capacities for communication that he has enabled in the logos."

That might be the Fray sentence of the week, although there's competition: Let's hear it for WorkingAuthor, who has harsh words for Doris Lessing, and adds sternly, "I hope she reads this." Let's hope her day isn't ruined. MR 3.30 p.m. GMT

Sunday, Sept. 21,  2008

Economics and witchcraft: This is not a combination we'll be hoping for more of in the future. Tim Harford's "Undercover Economist" on the dangers of being a witch in a recession produced considerable unease and gloom, and that's just in someone reading all the posts. In terms of fuel, "you need fires to stay warm … widows are renewable and environmentally friendly." You like that? How about: " 'Suffer not the witch to live'—That's good enough for me, heathens." (Possibly posted with a sense of irony.) "Wow, Christ said that? Christians are more badass than I thought," came back from Autotomic. (No, He didn't, BTW. The quote is strictly OT.) Surprisingly, up popped the name of Helen Duncan, the last person we were expecting, and the last person imprisoned (but not, as one post dramatically claimed, executed) under the Witchcraft Act in the U.K., in 1944; posters debated her case.

You kind of know that someone is going to start her post: "As a practicing witch, and a student of history ..." and in this case it was Elviragultch (yes, well …) who went on: "I have known for some time that the killing of witches is mostly a political act" and set off a long, sometimes odd thread.

Boredwell is not happy about the history of human relations, and after describing various miseries says, understandably, that the list shows a "mind-boggling, soul wrenching sobriety I am not able to comprehend."

"The self-consuming politics of fear" was the excellent post title from Wrolph, who said:

Smart rulers (and usurpers) know the power of fear and use it during times of economic crisis to great effect:

Step 1, find a good victim.

Step 2, whip the masses into a lather in order to divert them from asking too many difficult questions about the current rulers, or to make the current rulers look feckless.

Step 3, let the blood wash away our sins.

This is one of the divide and conquer tactics that has been time tested. The Nazis had their Jews, the Aztecs (and Romans) sacrificed humans to appease the gods (and deflect criticism of their own poor economic management). If our current economic crisis doesn't abate soon, look to our glorious rulers to follow suit.

Doc Holliday had a nicely judged post covering several aspects of the discussion, concluding, "Humans are a superstitious lot and prone to doing irrational things when stressed. This does not make it right or even understandable." No indeed. Time to get away from this atmosphere of unhappiness and cruelty and go read some readers' posts about the election. MR2:30 p.m. GMT

Friday, September 12,  2008

Yet again, I bring special qualifications to the week's Fraywatch subjects: I too was charmed by 100-year-old " Diary" geezer Leon Despres, and I too have a copy of Hotel Rwanda sitting unwatched near my TV. We were all in it together this week, with some very agreeable results.

Loving Leon: "Keep writing Leon you are interesting" Boils said. S/he was speaking for all readers—there were no dissenting voices, a rare phenomenon in the Fray. Eikciv put it this way: "I must admit that I did come to tears, not because I felt sorry for you, not at all, but because your voice carries such impact. Suddenly, I wanted to go to your apartment and converse with you for an entire day."

This came from Old Jarhead:

Sorry to use the trite phrase 'an inspiration' but your diary entry fills me with optimism. So I'll say it anyway; your attitude is an inspiration, and bears testimony to the beauty, and absurdity, of life. I'm only a little over halfway to your years, and will quite probably never see 100, but if I can sustain only a fraction of your interest in life for whatever years I've been allotted, I'll continue to be satisfied. Bravo!

More of the same (in the nicest possible way) from Akaneshua:

In a country that values youth over wisdom, it is easy to lose touch with people who retire or are shuffled off to nursing homes but I think this separation is at a great disservice to us. These articles are like a conversation with that interesting older man whom you see around but never get to speak with.

Regretflix—that was KathM's splendid coinage, and she was one of many who read and enjoyed the article about unwatched movies from Netflix, with Hotel Rwanda the most mentioned. Fray posters contributed advice: Ed Dunkle suggestswe multitask while watching and remember, "The key to happiness is low expectations."

Why not just send the movies back? Because of the pesky requirement to rate them—as Persia says, "Where's my 'I'm a lazy slacker and didn't watch it' button?"

Dsf3g  spoke for many:

When The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is just a hand's width away from Conan, I mean, seriously, what do you usually feel most in the mood for, German Expressionism or Austrian Blade Wielding Killing Machine?

But others wanted to talk up the neglected films: Which you might think had the most supporters? Fitzcarraldo perhaps? Vegemighty kept putting if off because of "applying for grad school, rugby season, job interviews, a wedding, a honeymoon, starting grad school …" but eventually watched it and "quite liked it." No, the surprising wave of enthusiasm (surprising? astonishing) was for the little-known Roll Bounce, along with a warning against letting it persuade you back on to the ice-rink (keywords: negative, falling, gruesome, not a good idea.)

This is a cry from the heart of Bureau Cat:

So you have heard from the person who has had Z sitting on top of his or her TV set for months now. Please ask him/her to send it in, on my behalf—I have been waiting for it.

And more good advice from Chicagogirl (whom we know to have an extensive knowledge of movies, and very good taste): "Go with Galaxy Quest."

Another Fray with no fights came on Ron Rosenbaum's " Spectator" on blurbing poetry: The best efforts by posters will feature in the column, and as of now there's still time to contribute. Literate, interesting, and collegial—the discussion is a model Fray. —MR ... 3:30 p.m. GMT

Moira Redmond, a former "Fray" editor at Slate, is a freelance writer living in England. You can e-mail her at moirared@hotmail.com.

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