Victor Margolin

Most anthropologists would agree that the number of languages in the world is declining. This is particularly true for those spoken by small communities that over the years have either dwindled to a few survivors or become extinct. While it is common for languages spoken by large groups to overwhelm those spoken by smaller ones, it is rare to see a language that belongs to a small group spread to a larger population. Such is the case with Palinese, a little-known language spoken by a small community in rural Alaska.

Palinese was introduced to the Lower 48 by a single native speaker, Sarah Palin, who achieved sudden notoriety as John McCain’s Vice-Presidential running mate. Originally, Lower 48ers had difficulty understanding Ms. Palin since Palinese sounds like English though it is actually quite different. Some linguists argue that Plinese is a dialect of English but a deeper investigation reveals that similarities to English are deceptive.

Whereas the purpose of English is to clarify meaning through a rigorous articulation between signs and signifiers, the intent of Palinese is to obscure. Those seeking to understand the language will be misled if they rely on conventional linguistic rules. For example, when Palinese speakers say that they are speaking the truth you are meant to understand that they mean something else. Should you take the speaker at face value, you would miss the point.

But lest one believe Palinese and English are more similar than they are, the unique rhetorical devices of Palinese must be highlighted. Palinese speakers don’t like to call attention to themselves by using pronouns. Thus they will say “Went to the store,” instead of “I went to the store.” Careful students of the language will notice that Sarah Palin is typical in this regard. She rarely uses pronouns, acceding only occasionally to the expectations of Lower 48ers. But journalists continue to transcribe her sentences as if she were speaking English. Were she an Eskimo or a member of some other previously recognized indigenous population, such transcription mistakes would be considered egregious cultural gaffes. However, the problem of transcribing Palinese is so new and the need to rush oral Palinese into print so urgent, that little thought has been given to a cultural policy that would punish disrespect for Palinese values. In addition, journalists have not realized that Palinese speakers prefer to communicate as economically as possible and consequently do not like the letter “g” at the end of a word. Where Sarah Palin says “goin” instead of “going” and “doin” instead of “doing,” journalists tend to write “going” or “doing,” thus removing crucial inflections from the original speech.

Palinese speakers also have a different sense of familiarity towards others. Since Palinese is spoken within a small community, there is no need for impersonal terms of address such as Sir, Mr., Mrs., or Ms. In fact Palinese speakers rarely use surnames. It has thus been difficult for Sarah Palin to adopt more formal terms as she engages in various interviews, debates, and other types of exchange that are customary in the Lower 48. In her recent debate with Senator Biden, for example, she called him Joe while he graciously addressed her as Governor Palin. Without the intensive debate preparation she underwent, she may well have addressed him as Joe Six Pack and his wife Jill as Hockey Mom.

Another way to express closeness among Palinese speakers is to repeat the name of the addressee frequently. Hence, the more times a Palinese speaker mentions an addressee’s name, the more it indicates a feeling of closeness. According to analysts of Palinese, frequency of name use is a powerful indicator of social solidarity. Journalists did not understand this when they reported on Sarah Palin’s first nationally televised interview with Charles Gibson. Had they been more familiar with the conventions of Palinese, they would have recognized that Sarah Palin’s repeated reference to Gibson as “Charley” was an overture of friendship instead of an attempt to hide the fact that she did not understand English very well.

Palinese is an oral language and its transcription into written form is unique to its introduction in the Lower 48. Within the community of native speakers, written texts are not valued, in part because they codify the memory of past events. When such events are fixed in written narratives, they reduce the creative communication of Palinese speakers who delight in continuously re-inventing the past. This discrepancy in cultural values between speakers of English and Palinese has caused Sarah Palin no end of trouble since she has simply continued the well-accepted practice of taking liberties with the past when her audiences in the Lower 48 have clamored for more consistent accounts of her previous actions.

Central to the understanding of Palinese is its most significant literary device, the “palindrome.” William S. Walsh describes the palindrome in his Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities as “a word or sentence which may be read backward as well as forward, letter by letter or word by word” (Walsh, 1906, p. 851). The author then goes on to distinguish between two types of palindromes, reciprocal ones that yield identical results when read either way and the reversible ones, whose meanings in each direction are “different or even absolutely antagonistic” (Walsh 1906, p. 851). Since Palinese is still somewhat new to Lower 48ers, there has been little opportunity to subject Sarah Palin’s speeches to backward readings to discover whether or not she favors reciprocal or reversible palindromes. Once analysts do review these texts, it is possible that a new set of different or antagonistic meanings will be revealed.

Although the Constitution specifies that candidates for the Presidency – and by implication the Vice-Presidency – of the United States must be American citizens, it does not mandate that they speak English. Though Sarah Palin appears to know the basics of the language, its similarity to Palinese might lead some to believe that she is more fluent in English than is actually the case. Should she become Vice-President we may discover that she is not able to comprehend the Constitution, much less tell her driver where to take her for her next appointment. Caveat emptor.

Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Department of Art History of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a founding editor of DesignIssues, is a regular contributor to Design-Altruism-Project.

3 Responses to “English and Palinese; Two Separate Languages”

  1. alan teller Says:

    I do believe that Sarah Palin’s language ‘Palinese’ can be understood using a variant of Chomsky’s linguistic theory of ‘deep structure,’ promulgated in the 1960s. What we are seeing is ‘shallow structure,” a very different concept. Everything she says is in fact based on nothing. This is quite difficult to accomplish, and in truth we should stand in awe of her ability to put any words together at all, considering the lack of any conceptual framework behind her words. This of course means that anyone listening to her speech and finding meaning in it is also apprehending shallow structure. That is to say, they understand nothing.

  2. Johnson Says:

    my God, i thought you were going to chip in with some decisive insght at the end there, not leave it with we leave it to you to decide.

  3. admin Says:

    Not sure what you mean.