DAVE DAVIES, host:
Commentators have been all over President Obama's inaugural address. While many found it forceful and lyrical, other said it was unmemorable. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg agrees with that view, but doesn't see that as a bad thing.
GEOFF NUNBERG: A modern inaugural address is sort of like an Olympic equestrian event where the course and maneuvers are precisely spelled out, and the points are awarded purely for style and execution. Obama's speech certainly made all the required moves, a few biblical illusions, a nod to Tom Paine, a shout out to Jerome Kern. But it really wasn't particularly memorable, if we still lived in an age when people put together collections of great speeches for peoples to memorize and declaim on national holidays, it isn't likely this one would be included. The editor would more likely go with the moving speech that Obama gave in Grant Park on the night of the election.
(Soundbite of speech)
President BARACK OBAMA: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, Who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
(Soundbite of applause)
NUNBERG: But actually, I'd count the speech's on un-memorability as one of its strengths. Ceremonial speech making this on a natural anachronistic exercise, and I'm not sure whether anybody could ever again give an address as memorable as Kennedy's in 1963 or Roosevelt's in 1933.
People sight Reagan's 1981 speech is the best since then. And it's certainly counts as one of the clearest. But its language was unremarkable and even hokey at times. The only line people remember from it, is government isn't the solution, which worked much better in the version that Reagan had been using on the campaign trails since 1975, where he added the snapper, government is the problem. In fact, when you reread Roosevelt and Kennedy's speeches, you realize how rhetorically remote their age was. Take the famous sentence from Kennedy's inaugural that begins, now the trumpet summons us again not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, and so on for another 25 words or so. It's still a stirring line, but you can imagine any recent president trying to get away with it. Kennedy was the last president who could comfortably dip into the stew of classical figures of speech. Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, that would be both chiasmus and plyptoton.
Rhetoricians have been botanizing this stuff from millennia. And by now, there's virtually no way to put two words together that doesn't have a Greek label preserved in aspic by generations of English department pedants. The medieval scholars called those figures of speech the rhetorical colors, from a Latin term for ornament. They flourish over the centuries when the proper role of literature and oration was the decorous ornamentation of thought, and when politicians and poets drew from the same rhetorical well. And you can still turn out moves like that if you rummage around in T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens. But rhetorical ornament is alien to the spirit of modern literature. Its still survives in some religious traditions. It comes naturally to a Jesse Jackson or Joseph Lowery, though it sounds a bit forced coming from the energetically affable Rick Warren. For the most part though, these figures are reserved nowadays for advertising slogans, bumper stickers and the titles of country songs. That the linguistic equivalent of stunt writing.
Take the figure speech in Kennedy's, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. The classical rhetorician called that antimetabole, though modern speech writers tend to refer to it as the reversible raincoat. Politicians are still irresistibly drawn to it. Bill Clinton had his, People are more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power. John McCain had, We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. And Hillary Clinton went with, The true test is not the speeches a president delivers. It's whether the president delivers on the speeches. That figure of speech has roots since Shakespeare and Blake. It's in Kipling's, What should they know of England who only England know? And Frederick Douglas used it when he said, You have seen how a man was made a slave. You shall see how a slave was made a man. But to modern listeners, those lines are most likely to bring to mind the syntactic two step of slogans like, When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. Or in its purest classical form, StarKist doesn't want tuna with good taste. StarKist wants tuna that tastes good. It's as catchy as ever, but it can't be the vessel for a deep idea anymore.
Of course, Obama's speech was dotted with some of the other turns in classical figures that ceremonial address as require. A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. That was polyptoton, or using a word in two different ways, as in FDR's, nothing to fear but fear itself. It was a tidy turn or phrase, but you have the sense Obama could have done better. And there was a soupcon of catachresis in, the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, which Obama read with the rising intonation that evoked Martin Luther King. But Obama didn't do a lot of rhetorical overreaching. He did just enough to nail the event. No, it wasn't a speech for the ages. But I found it reassuring that he kept his coat on right side out.
DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.