Sarah Palin, shared context, and code-switching

Posted in Politics at 2:00 pm by ducky

Anil Dash has a posting where he takes Sarah Palin to task for her use of language (and rightly so, IMHO).

He also talks about the phenomenon of code-switching, the practice of switching languages or dialects:

[O]ne of the most interesting traits about [code-switching] is not merely how easy it is for people to switch language on the fly, but rather how the choice of language actually informs the meaning and the nuance of the words being said.

I read a fascinating paper on formality and language which pretty convincingly showed that informality in language is an indicator of shared context, and as such a indication of intimacy. You use formal language with the CEO of your company or the Queen because to use informal language would be uppity — it would say that you thought you had a lot in common. Conversely, if you started speaking very formally to your spouse, he/she would wonder what was wrong.

I see this in myself. Because my home dialect is very close to “newsroom English” — educated upper Midwestern — I don’t really have a home dialect to switch into. Thus sometimes in the US when I want to demonstrate intimacy, I will switch into AAVE even if both I and the other person are white! Most Americans are at least partially versed in AAVE, so that is a way of demonstrating shared context. However, I would never use AAVE with a Canadian, as that would emphasize our difference, exposing context that we did not share.

So what is Sarah Palin’s use of dialect doing? She is showing, “I am like you.” And, since she is using a white dialect, she is implicitly saying, “I am white like you.” I completely agree with Anil that Palin is trying paint Obama as Other and McCain as Not-Other, and think that her choice of a very white dialect is part of that.

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