"What Does Palinspeak Mean?"

April 12th, 2010 by

H/T to @cgtmouse who forwarded this article to me:

Why does Sarah Palin talk the way she does? Just what is this sort of thing below?

“We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there and understand the contrast. And we talk a lot about, OK, we’re confident that we’re going to win on Tuesday, so from there, the first 100 days, how are we going to kick in the plan that will get this economy back on the right track and really shore up the strategies that we need over in Iraq and Iran to win these wars?”

Just forty years ago people would be shocked to read something like this as a public statement from someone even pretending, as Palin pretty much had to have been by the time of this quote, that they were going to be serving in a Presidential Administration.


Rather, Palin is given to meandering phraseology of a kind suggesting someone more commenting on impressions as they enter and leave her head rather than constructing insights about them. Or at least, insights that go beyond the bare-bones essentials of human cognition — an entity (i.e. something) and a predicate (i.e. something about it).

The easy score is to flag this speech style as a sign of moronism. But we have to be careful — there is a glass houses issue here. Before parsing Palinspeak we have to understand the worldwide difference between spoken and written language — and the fact that in highly literate societies, we tend to have idealized visions of how close our speech supposedly is to the written ideal.

Namely, linguists have shown that spoken utterances — even by educated people (that is, even you) — average seven to ten words. We speak in little packets. And the result is much baggier than we think of language as being, because we live under the artificial circumstance of engaging language so much on the page, artificially enshrined, embellished, and planned out. That’s something only about 200 languages out of 6000 have been subjected to in any real way, and widespread literacy is a human condition only a few centuries old in most places.


Yet Palinspeak still differs from statements like Brownback’s in degree. It’s a rather extreme case — an almost instructive distillation of the difference in public conceptions of language in Charles Eaton and Robert Byrd’s time versus our own. “Folksy” is only the beginning of it — “You betcha,” –in for –ing, and “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” during her debate with Joseph Biden indeed make her sound accessible, ordinary, unpretentious. This, however, is America as a whole, and no one should be shocked that a public figure would strike this note. “You betcha” hits the same chord in Palin’s fans as the equally folksy — and close to meaningless — “Yes, We Can” intoned in a preacherly “black” way did when a certain someone else was saying it. Folksy is America; it always has been, but is especially so now.

What truly distinguishes Palin’s speech is its utter subjectivity: that is, she speaks very much from the inside of her head, as someone watching the issues from a considerable distance. The there fetish, for instance — Palin frequently displaces statements with an appended “there,” as in “We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there…” But where? Why the distancing gesture? At another time, she referred to Condoleezza Rice trying to “forge that peace.” That peace? You mean that peace way over there — as opposed to the peace that you as Vice-President would have been responsible for forging? She’s far, far away from that peace.

All of us use there and that in this way in casual speech — it’s a way of placing topics as separate from us on a kind of abstract “desktop” that the conversation encompasses. “The people in accounting down there think they can just ….” But Palin, doing this even when speaking to the whole nation, is no further outside of her head than we are when talking about what’s going on at work over a beer. The issues, American people, you name it, are “there” — in other words, not in her head 24/7. She hasn’t given them much thought before; they are not her. They’re that, over there.

Consider this not as a political article, rather an exploration of dialogue. The author of the article — John McWhorter, a contributing editor for “The New Republic” — has done is in effect what writers do: Drill into a character’s persona to surface underlying experiences, motivations, and behaviors that influence them, specifically how they say what they say. Sarah Palin speaks differently than Barack Obama, and that is – from a writer’s POV – a key factor in helping to distinguish these two ‘characters’ from each other.

When you are doing your character work, exploring the personal histories of each one of your story’s characters, the results can – and probably should – be reflected in the language / dialogue patterns of your various characters. Just like a former basketball player, sports anchorwoman, and Alaska governor will sound ‘folksy’ while a constitutional law and Harvard law scholar will take pride in the clarity of their articulation.

At a fundamental level, the goal for a screenwriter is to craft characters who are a distinct individuals, even in the way they speak. As one writer noted in an interview I read years ago, you should be able to white-out all the character names in a script, and a reader should be able to determine which character is which from the dialogue alone – Character A sounds like this, Character B sounds like that, Character C sounds different, and so on.

In this respect, a screenwriter can take McWhorter’s article on Sarah Palin and reverse engineer the process: Instead of looking at how a character named “Sarah Palin” speaks and speculate how her background has influenced her form of communication, dig into a character, then consider how their personal history might affect how they speak and what they say.

BTW, cgtmouse has a fine blog Classical Greek Theatre:

Classical Geek Theatre is sub-culture for inhumans. It provides one guy’s eyes’ perspective on local LA rock shows, recorded music, movies, and other things that bear particular relevance to dorks, hipsters, and culture-mutants.

Check it out.

4 thoughts on “"What Does Palinspeak Mean?"

  1. itstartedwithawindmill says:

    FYI: Palin didn't know why there are two Korea's. That would eliminate her or anyone from consideration for any potentiality to becoming president IMO.

    One thing that I notice too often in screenplays is the use of an ellipse (…) within dialogue that isn't when a character does not complete a thought.

    Instead of writing. You know? Like choppy dialogue. When people talk all chopped up. Happens all the time. Characters just say stuff.

    Instead writer put an ellipse in there…to somehow indicate that dialogue…is in sentence fragments…, but there are no actual pauses. I know that The Screenwriter's Bible says not to worry about the proper use of an ellipse or two dashes (–), but both serve an actual purpose for actors speaking dialogue.

  2. Christian H. says:

    I'd say that "Palinspeak" is an unfortunate consequence of the current trend AGAINST intellectual over-achievement.

    Though I was a consistent member of the National English Honor Society, I tend to simplify my speech when speaking idly, but in any professional or formal situation I un-relax my speech patterns.

    Again though with everyone feeling that they just need technology with no understanding of it, I'm not sure how we'll lead the world.

  3. James says:

    I wouldn't call it Palinspeak.


    It's just people talking before they actually start thinking.

    For some reason, an immediate response is prized over the awkwardness of a pause followed by intelligent thought.

  4. RonC says:

    Just like a former basketball player, sports anchorwoman, and Alaska governor will sound 'folksy' while a constitutional law and Harvard law scholar will take pride in the clarity of their articulation.

    You mean like this bizarre, rambling, deceptive, non-answer to what should have been a simple question?


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