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!


  1. Ads on the radio change “voices” every few sentences – from a male to a female speaker, from unprocessed speech to sound effects, and so on. I assume this is a way of keeping our attention, or rather, subconsciously startling us every few seconds so we don’t “tune out”.

  2. 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

    Well, duh. Today’s public is soooo much smarter; they know absolutely everything worth knowing! And GUT help you if you try to imply they might possibly be ignorant in any way. PITS are king.

  3. Hmmm… not sure about this. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address took him about three minutes to read and it was interupted five times by applause. And I think his debates were raucous affairs.

  4. Was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address classified as a “speech” in his time? I thought the real “speech” at Gettyburg was given by a professional speaker and lasted 3 hours.
    Lincoln just came up with a few off-the-cuff back-of-an-old-envelope scribbled-on-the-train-en-route-to-the-ceremony “remarks” suitable to the occasion.

  5. The opposite argument has been made with Shakespeare – that 19th century audiences’ raucous responses show they were engaged with living classic literature, while today it is a prestigious fossil to be handled with kid gloves. So either more emotion or less emotion can be used to prove that things have gone to hell these days.

  6. “Even in indigenous tribes,” … yes, a very old-fashioned linguist indeed. These days most of us have realised that the fact that Indigenous groups are fully functioning cultural enterprises isn’t (or shouldn’t be) surprising.
    That aside, one thing that really strikes me listening to the Convention speeches is the degree of use of classical oratory devices. Obama’s speeches are full of chiasmus, triads, asyndeton, etc. McCain’s and Palin’s speech writers hardly use these devices at all. Since all of these speeches are essentially content free the structure and delivery are much more interesting to listen to.

  7. McWhorter, a creolist with some interesting theories, is explaining to the audience, not expressing surprise himself. On the Colbert Report a week ago, he also came out for Obama, in spite of being a well-known (black) conservative.

  8. I suspect that the characterization of John McWhorter as a conservative is more a reflection of the lack of nuance in such characterizations than a fact about him. I’m not at all surprised that he supports Obama. As far as I can tell, the only reason that John is considered a conservative is that he does not follow the party line on Black issues. To my knowledge he has never expressed typical social conservative views such as opposition to abortion, contraception, sex education, evolution, or the equality of women, nor has he ever said anything in favor of “faith based” government programs or prayer in public schools. He hasn’t, to my knowledge, supported the Bush administration on issues like the use of torture, warrantless surveillance, the Guantanamo kangaroo courts, or the invasion of Iraq. I don’t recall him complaining about “big government” and advocating privatization. I don’t know his views on all of these issues, but as far as I can tell he is classified as a conservative solely on the basis of one narrow set of issues.

  9. So, Steve, do you think the wild boar strongholds are where Osama bin Laden is hiding out?

  10. Very likely!

  11. John Emerson says

    We now know that Lincoln’s speech writers went through many drafts and handed Lincoln a neatly written speech, which he memorized and then scrawled on the back of an envelope.

  12. I’m pretty sure those examples of Cuna “Chief Language” are from Kuna Ways of Speaking, which is available as a remainder for less than the cost of postage.

  13. Yes, the main event at Gettysburg was an oration by Edward Everett that took over 2 hours. Lincoln gave what were billed as “dedicatory remarks.” The bit about him scribbling them on the back of an envelope has been shown to be false, but he did write his remarks, as he wrote all his speeches. Apparently he had a high, squeaky voice and a strong Kentucky accent, but a great gift for oratory. Judging from what I’ve read (this isn’t my specialty), orators were kind of pop star performance artists, and people would listen to them for hours, clapping and commenting throughout. What I still can’t figure out is how, without microphones, folks heard the speakers. There were over 15,000 people at Gettysburg. How’d the guy and gal in back hear anything?

  14. “What did he say? ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers?'”

  15. “A college graduate at 19 and a tenured professor at 33, he has published seven previous books, including the controversial best seller, “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America” (The Free Press, 2000), in which he accused middle-class blacks of embracing anti-intellectualism and a cult of victimology. An African-American who is an outspoken critic of affirmative action, welfare and reparations, he has aroused the ire of many liberals and earned a reputation as a conservative.”
    This from a review in The Times a while back is what had me thinking McWhorter was a conservative (until Steve set me straight.) Link: (http://www.unm.edu/~pre/law/articles_advise/english.htm)
    But this — “I suspect that the characterization of John McWhorter as a conservative is more a reflection of the lack of nuance in such characterizations than a fact about him” — seems dead-on to me. I mean, really, after watching those conventions, if the platform of either party is now synonymous with conservatism (or liberalism, or progressivism) we might as well just never apply the terms to thinking people.

  16. Just to set the record straight, it was Bill who set the record straight, not that I disagree.

  17. Not that it matters, but for my personal record it was actually you who set it straight, via email, after I asked you about McWhorter upon downloading his excellent lecture series “The Story of Human Language” from The Teaching Company.

  18. Thanks for setting me straight!

  19. It’s thought provoking that in today’s world the “Kuna tribes from Panama” are still consider to be a warrior tribe, proud and independent, distrustful to the pratfalls of modernisation, despite the “puppeteer” government in control. Pitiful enough, not much has changed since Rodrigo de Bastida and Vasco Nunez de Balboa discovered the Isthmus in 1501 .
    It is interesting to see how a “David” of our times has five minutes of linguistic fame.

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