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October 4, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor

Everything You Heard Is Wrong

By STEVEN PINKER

Boston

SINCE the vice presidential debate on Thursday night, two opposing myths have quickly taken hold about Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. The first, advanced by her supporters, is that she made it through a gantlet of fire; the second, embraced by her detractors, is that her speaking style betrays her naïveté. Both are wrong.

Let’s take the first myth: Governor Palin subjected herself to the most demanding test possible — a televised debate. By surviving, she won. As the front page of The Daily News of New York screamed this morning, “No Baked Alaska.”

But as a test of clear thinking, the debate format was far less demanding than a face-to-face interview — the kind Ms. Palin had with Katie Couric of CBS.

Why? Because in a one-on-one conversation, you can’t launch into a prepared speech on a topic unrelated to the question. Imagine this exchange — based on the first question that the moderator, Gwen Ifill, gave Ms. Palin and Senator Joe Biden — if it took place in casual conversation over coffee:

LISA How about that bailout? Was this Washington at its best or at its worst?

MICHAEL You know, I think a good barometer here, as we try to figure out has this been a good time or a bad time in America’s economy, is go to a kid’s soccer game on Saturday, and turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, “How are you feeling about the economy?”

Lisa would flee. (This was, in fact, Ms. Palin’s response.) In a conversation, you have to build your sentence phrase by phrase, monitoring the reaction of your listener, while aiming for relevance to the question. That’s what led Ms. Palin into word salad with Ms. Couric. But when the questioner is 30 feet away on the floor and you’re on a stage talking to a camera, which can’t interrupt or make faces, you can reel off a script without embarrassment. The concerns raised by the Couric interviews — that Ms. Palin memorizes talking points rather than grasping issues — should not be allayed by her performance in the forgiving format of a debate.

The second myth about Ms. Palin is that her accent is contrived, or that it reveals laziness or ignorance on her part. Certainly, Ms. Palin cranked the folksiness dial to 11 during the debate: she dropped more g’s, reverted to “nucular” after being teleprompted during the Republican National Convention to pronounce it “new-clear,” and salted her speech with cutesy near profanities like “darn,” “heck” and “doggone.”

But it would be unfair to question the authenticity of her accent or to use it as a measure of her intellect or sophistication. The dialect is certainly for real. Listeners who hear the Minnewegian sounds of the characters from “Fargo” when they listen to Ms. Palin are on to something: the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in Alaska, where she grew up, was settled by farmers from Minnesota during the Depression.

And no, “nucular” is not a sign of ignorance. This reversal of vowel-like consonants (nuk-l’-yer —> nuk-y’-ler) is common in the world’s languages, and is no more illiterate than pronouncing “iron” the way most Americans do, as “eye-yern” instead of “eye-ren.”

Nor is Ms. Palin guilty of laziness in “dropping g’s,” because there is no such thing as “dropping g’s.” The sounds at the end of “nothing” and “nothin’” are different consonants (linguists call them “eng” and “en”), one produced with the tongue on the gum ridge, the other with the tongue on the soft palate. We just spell the second one with two letters. We all flip between “eng” and “en” in our speech, though lower-class speakers do it more, and everyone does it more when the conversation is more casual. It’s the output of an informality dial that all of us, regardless of accent, twiddle as we tune our speech to the circumstances.

And twiddle it she did. Ms. Palin, for instance, pronounced her “ens” more conspicuously in the debate than in the Couric interviews, a part to emphasize that she was one with “everyday American people, Joe Six-Pack, hockey moms across the nation.”

The impression fits with the overall theme that Ms. Palin and Senator John McCain have been trying to advance: that expertise is overrated, homespun sincerity is better than sophistication, conviction is more important than analysis.

Being able to see Russia from Alaska, then, means you have an understanding of foreign policy; living in an Arctic state means that you have an understanding of climate change. In Mr. McCain’s case, it means, as he wrote last month, understanding technology policy because he flew airplanes in Vietnam and being concerned about the oceans’ health because he served in the Navy.

Much could also be written about Senator Joe Biden’s gaffes and what they reveal about him. In the meantime, voters judging Ms. Palin’s performance should focus on the facile governing philosophy that is symbolized by her speech style, not the red herrings of accent or dialect.

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is the author of “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature.”