By Noel Sheppard (Bio | Archive)
Tue, 04/06/2010 - 20:20 ET
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"Conclusion: Sarah Palin Speaks Like A Toddler."
Such is the title of a Mediaite piece published Tuesday which badly cherry-picked a rather comprehensive analysis of the former Alaska governor's speech patterns.
To make her demeaning point about Palin, author Glynnis MacNicol offered her readers a grand total of six sentences from John McWhorter's 2500-word piece published at The New Republic.
Maybe even worse, her well thought out analysis of the linguist's work was economically presented in only five sentences. Here were the first four:
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Brave soul, linguist, and conservative political commentator John McWhorter attempts to answer the eternal question: What is Sarah Palin talking about?
Actually, it's more like what version of the English language is Sarah Palin using, because it's not one most of us are familiar with, as anyone who has been required to transcribe a Palin speech is painfully aware. McWhorter, however, sees a strange problem that goes far beyond Palin's habit of being "folksy," something that he finds little fault with. At one point he compares her language skills to that of a toddler.
To prove this, MacNicol offered the following two paragraphs of McWhorter's:
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).
This reminds me of toddlers who speak from inside their own experience in a related way: they will come up to you and comment about something said by a neighbor you’ve never met, or recount to you the plot of an episode of a TV show they have no way of knowing you’ve ever heard of. Palin strings her words together as if she were doing it for herself — meanings float by, and she translates them into syntax in whatever way works, regardless of how other people making public statements do it.
Problem is there are 18 paragraphs and 1,255 words BETWEEN these two quotes, or roughly half the article.
Now THAT'S what I call cherry-picking.
With this in mind, let's take a look at some of the paragraphs MacNicol conveniently ignored:
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.