Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is Palin Incoherent?

The excellent Language Log has two connected posts about the popular accusation that Sarah Palin speaks incoherently. The first, Bebop Language by Mark Liberman sets out the idea that exact transcripts of even brilliant speakers make them appear to be incoherent. This is echoed and commented on by Lizardbreath at Unfogged: I Think There's Something Wrong With The Methodology Here, who relates it to court transcripts. Liberman takes it back up again in an excellent summation Speaking (in)coherently, with reference to Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns," and political speech in general. An excerpt:
4) Listeners are also variable and unreliable. The same passage may strike one person as entirely lucid and another as so incoherent as to be hardly human. This effect is especially strong for people, groups, ideas, or ways of talking that elicit strong negative emotions: a hated celebrity, pronunciations or usages associated with a despised group, conceptual pet peeves, and so on. We've discussed many examples over the years, but perhaps none has been clearer than the Plain English Campaign's 2003 Foot in Mouth award to Donald Rumsfeld for his "unknown unknowns" remark.


Sam L. said...

That "unknown unknowns" comment was well known and fully understood by military people and anyone with knowledge of building prototype aircraft (particularly such as engineers).

The known unknowns are the things we know we need to study and learn about to be successful in the undertaking. The unknown unknowns are those we find while working on the known unknowns. Quite simple, really.

But there are those who are "against" the project, or just snarky.

Larry said...

Sarah Palin is anything but incoherent.

The fact that she is perfectly coherent in her beliefs is the very thing that make the leftists hate her.

She knows what she believes (without self-delusion in covering up cognitive dissonance, because she has none), she describes what she believes without trying to delude her audience, and her message is perfectly clear.

It is only the delusional that find her incoherent.

(another) Jonathan said...

Palin, like George W. Bush, is the opposite of incoherent. What the critics really mean is that they don't agree with her. Calling someone incoherent is what people with weak arguments do to avoid arguing about substance.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The point in the links - I assume you all dutifully followed them, class - is that yes, there are examples of Palin being incoherent. However, there are examples of everyone in politics being incoherent, including some people regarded as quite bright and speakers of clarity.

Ben said...

Does "incoherent" mean lacking in firm grammatical structure, or does it mean completely lacking in sense and meaning? Many critics of Palin deliberately equivocate on this, taking evidence of the former and then claiming the latter. One of the things I liked about Liberman's analysis was that he was not playing this game.

Ben said...

I have also observed that ordinary people become less grammatically coherent when they are trying to be more careful about what they say. Concerns about nuance, fairness or feelings constantly intrude and knock them off course. This is especially true in a situation where what they say is likely to be misrepresented or misinterpreted, as in the modern political media environment.

Thus, politicians often speak more coherently in prepared speeches (when the concerns are addressed carefully in advance) or in private conversation (when they can be more direct and less guarded). In a typical "press availability" they do less well.

A nimble verbal intelligence helps, of course -- but every other sort of intelligence will actually make this problem worse, since it will make you more aware of the pitfalls. Since you are more conscious of the mines, your path through the minefield becomes even less straight.

Larry said...

I know of no authority for "incoherent means 'talks funny'", or "incoherent means 'talks differently from me'", or "incoherent means 'stutters'".

There is a difference between "incoherent" and "incomprehensible".

The later might be because the speaker is a lawyer, and I am not.