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  • Words don't lie, part III: Campaign rhetoric gives way to campaign linguistics

    Language has taken on a special prominence in the 2008 presidential election. It's customary for each side to malign the opposition for using words that are vague or deceptive, and even for lying outright  nothing new there. But this time around it's Language with a big "L" that's also coming under scrutiny, the use of language as a whole, not just individual words unfairly spun or improperly deployed.

    Republicans in this campaign adamantly disapprove of Democrats using any words at all. As James Woods points out in the New Yorker, Phyllis Schlafly dismissed Barack Obama as "just an élitist who worked with words" (and I thought only élitists spelled the word with an acute accent), while praising Sarah Palin for working not with words but with her hands (shooting moose from a helicopter when you're seven months pregnant sure trumps writing books).

    Palin herself trivialized Obama for, as she put it, "authoring" two books – apparently everybody but bloggers knows that writing is a waste of time. Using words is something that elitists do, when they're not windsurfing and sipping chablis. Instead they should emulate Republicans and do stuff that's really important, like popping open beer cans or trying to remember where they put the keys to their many houses and cars.

    But Republican language is being dismissed just as cavalierly by the other side of the aisle. Kitty Burns Florey diagrammed Sarah Palin's sentences in Slate to demonstrate that they were ungrammatical. Florey concludes that what Palin says is "not English – it's a collection of words strung together."

    That makes Palin unfit to lead, since according to Florey, "politicians need to be able to think on their feet, to have a brain that works quickly and rationally under pressure." True enough, but Slate's grammarian goes on to equate undiagrammable sentences like Palin's with sloppy, irrational thinking – expressing the kind of attitude about linguistic correctness that all of us have heard at least once in our lives, often from an irrational grammarian criticizing an essay we handed in for homework. 

    Palin sentence diagram 

    Florey's diagram of a Palin sentence uttered during a TV interview with Charles Gibson.

    What's wrong with this picture, of course, is not just that Palin has more liabilities than her sentence structure (not to mention the fact that incoherence didn't keep George Bush out of the oval office), it's that sentence diagrams were invented to analyze planned written language, not impromptu speech. Many sharp thinkers don't think well on their feet, and many coherent speakers don't write well. Some are good at both, some at neither. While sloppy impromptu speech may indeed indicate irrationality, in some cases it's simply sloppy impromptu speech. In any case, there's much to criticize in Palin's rhetoric, but while she may be guilty of building sentences to nowhere, diagrams can't help us reach that conclusion.

    What's even more wrong with the picture is that Florey uses a style of diagramming – Reed-Kellogg diagrams – that is a good 60 years out of date. It's as if everything we've learned about language since 1950 – in both transformational theory and sociolinguistics – never happened. Florey is not the only evidence of this sad fact: go into the nation's high school English classes, and you'll see teachers teaching flat earth linguistics, not Chomsky, Searle, Fishman and Labov, but that's another story.

    Of course real linguists, whose job it is to work with words (which may explain why most linguists vote Democratic), take a look at political language now and then as well. For example, some specialists in American language have been seriously speculating about the nature of Palin's Alaskan dialect, wondering if it contains admixtures of Idaho, where she also spent time (no one mentions the impact that Palin's brief sojourn at a Hawaii college may have had on her accent), which is interesting from a scientific point of view because most Americans get little exposure to the language of the 49th state (in case you thought "Northern Exposure" and "Men in Trees" were realistic, they weren't).

    But one pseudo-scientific analyst (he's not a real linguist, he just plays one on the Web), who tricked CNN into thinking he was on to something, insisted that in the vice presidential debate, Palin spoke at a 9th-grade reading level, while Sen. Biden's language was at least a year behind.

    There's something wrong with that picture too: the whole concept of reading level was developed for grading the difficulty levels of children's school texts. Spoken language – the kind used in debates and conversations – is nothing like "See Spot run" and can't be sequenced according to number of words and syllables like Dick and Jane readers.

     Dick and Jane reader 

    Children's readers are graded according to level of difficulty, but there's no recognized standard for assessing the "grade level" of adult spoken English. 

    The second presidential debate was held in Nashville, and it too produced some language commentary.

    For the second debate, the Washington Post published its customary tag cloud of words the candidates favored. It's not clear what significance we should draw from stats that show John McCain said America 63 times to Barack Obama's 19 (is McCain's frequent repetition of America supposed to suggest to viewers that he's the more patriotic candidate?), or that Obama said work twice as often as McCain (both men could retire tomorrow and not have to work again).

    Sen. McCain called his opponent Sen. Obama 33 times, but in one moment of pique he forgot Obama's name and called him "that one" (McCain, discussing an energy bill, said, "You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one."). Here the less-frequently-used term, the one that didn't make the Post's most popular word list, was more significant. That's not surprising considering that the more we use a word, the less it means, but it doesn't mean one could argue that to McCain, America actually means less than it does to Obama, which would be absurd, since they both wore flag pins. 

     Washington Post tag cloud 

    Washington Post's tag cloud of candidates' favorite vocabulary words

    Once again, too, CNN deployed its hi-tech people monitor to track viewer reactions to the candidates' words in real time. Sen. McCain used my friends a lot in this debate – 22 times according to the Post. It's not clear, though, from the flat response the line drew on the people monitor, that the phrase made him seem friendly.

    While pundits and talking heads concluded on the one hand that Obama had won the debate by a landslide, and on the other hand that both candidates continued to play it safe, dodge the questions and merely repeat what they've been saying all along, the Perception Analyzer showed what anyone with half a brain could tell without a digital readout, that once again Ohio's undecided voters, like most debate watchers nationwide, were barely kept awake by the candidates' words. Which makes sense when you consider that the more candidates repeat something, the less it means to us -- and probably to them as well.

    McCain at the debate 

    No, McCain's not flatlining. CNN's "people monitor" allows viewers to give their reaction to McCain (above) and Obama (below) in real-time (the reason Obama's levels are a little higher than McCain's is that someone in the audience was snoring). 

     Obama at the 2nd debate

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