Sarah Palin's Language in the VP Debate


Sarah Palin's language in the vice presidential debate is a natural topic for this blog, which covers both women and language.

Palin's answers were sprinkled with folksy colloquialisms - phrases like "you betcha," "a heck of a lot," "darn right," "doggone it," "the tax thing," and "man" (as an interjection). She dropped consonants, as in the word "pushin'," and she mispronounced "nuclear." At times her informality covered a lack of substance, as in this response to a question on the Constitution's provisions about the vice president: "We have a lot of flexibility in there."  Does language like this help or hurt the cause of women's progress?

            Responses in the media were instructive. Bill Maher called Palin's language "corny." From the right, Rich Lowry commented that Palin's presentation, including winking, no doubt caused many men to "sit up a little straighter" as she sent "starbursts right through the screen." Neither is of these is the sort of response that most professional women would like to generate in a nationally significant debate.

            A woman physician I know found Palin's informality "unprofessional" and "embarrassing." So I tried to imagine various men using similar language. What if Joe Biden had talked that way? Or former presidents Clinton, Bush I, or Reagan? Each would have seemed comically unprofessional, more like a breathless teenager than a president. And if Barack Obama talked like Palin, he would probably be dismissed as a lightweight or worse.

            In discussing education, George W. Bush once warned against "the soft bigotry of low expectations." We law professors advise our students to avoid colloquialisms in professional discourse. Expecting less professionalism from a female vice presidential candidate than from other professionals fuels soft bigotry against women. And that does not help women's cause.

                                      --The Word Aficionado

'Like Eliza Doolittle'

I too thought Palin's folksy lexicon and casual demeanor in the VP debate drew stark contrasts between her and Senator Biden, and evidently I'm not alone. In the October 5 issue of the CJ's Forum, Tanja Eikenboom commented "she (Ms. Palin) tried to flirt herself into the good graces of the American public using cutesy words, lies, scripted attack lines, platitudes, gibberish, grating references to her own pseudo-folksy authenticity AND, for goodness sake, winking at the camera."

Regardless of your political ideology, can we not agree that it is a sad day for voters everywhere when a female politician's performance is judged on style and not substance?

I'm not a woman, but . . .

Apparently, not all educated women feel that Gov. Palin's style of speech is so damaging to the women,, so maybe also all professional women do not feel the way you do about Gov. Palin. Clearly, not everyone thinks that Gov. Palin's speaking style contributes to the "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

I also have a female professor who mispronounces "nuclear," and there has never been any suggestion that she is hurting the cause of women's progress. The reason for this is most likely because people are looking at the body of her work, which is clearly what we should do with Gov. Palin.

And even if there are those out there do give in to "the soft bigotry of low expectations," does that mean that we should not educate them on the fact that one should not judge others on what they sound like, just like we should not judge others on what they look like? Should we give in to this "soft bigotry"?