John McWhorter in The New Republic has a typically thoughtful and interesting discussion of “Why political oratory sounds so weird.” He starts off:
If Abraham Lincoln were brought back to life, one thing that would throw him, other than electric power and the Internet, would be that audiences disrupted his speeches by clapping after every three or four lines. As ordinary as this seems now, this kind of applause is actually a custom of our times: Wesleyan political scientist Elvin Lim has documented that, in records of presidential addresses since Franklin D. Roosevelt, 97 percent of the applause lines appear in speeches by Richard Nixon and his successors. To speakers in Lincoln’s day, a public address was typically a lecture. In our time, it is more often a love-in, more about the speaker “connecting” with the audience than teaching it anything new; hence the constant interruptions for clapping.
Not that surprising, but not something that would necessarily occur to us if it weren’t pointed out. And McWhorter being the old-fashioned kind of linguist who actually studies other languages, he makes his point with nice exotic examples:
Oratorical drama is a cultural universal. Even in indigenous tribes, the kind of language used when speaking before large groups is different from casual speech. Among the Cuna of Panama, when a chief gives an address, he deliberately uses archaic grammar full of sounds and suffixes long obsolete in everyday speech. “God left behind wild boar strongholds” is Pap yannu kalukan urpis if you are saying it to a friend, but in a speech comes out festooned with antique bric-a-brac: Pap-a yannu kalukan-a urpis-aye—rather like Americans giving speeches in the English of Chaucer.
One purpose of this kind of artifice is holding the audience’s attention. Human speech is fundamentally a social activity that occurs in the form of conversation. Sitting in silence listening to others talk at length is a secondary and learned activity—think of the noisy Elizabethan audiences at the Globe Theatre. The Cuna even assign a custodial figure to say “Don’t sleep!” (Kapita marye!) at regular intervals during public addresses. In addition to using such blunt instruments, orators worldwide hold the floor through the novelty of vocabulary and grammar that is conspicuously formal.
He goes on to Woodrow Wilson, Aristotle, Barbara Jordan, Charles Eaton (“Yesterday, against the roar of Japanese cannon in Hawaii, our American people heard a trumpet call; a call to unity; a call to courage; a call to determination…”), and of course the current sound-bite masters of the political arena (who, if you ask me, should talk more about wild boar strongholds). Thanks, Kári!