His Way With Words: Cadence and Credibility





Now we get to hear Barack Obama give an inaugural address: seen from the Mall, from bleachers, from a distant seat in a winter tree (weather permitting), he will be another in a long history of tiny humans up there, bustling around against the shoulder-y bulk of the Capitol....

Analysts of Obama's oratory cite the influence of African American preaching tradition, but the influence is older, rooted like a mangrove in the swamp of the nervous system.

"It's about the tune, not the lyrics, with Obama," says Philip Collins, who wrote speeches for Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. In a BBC report, Collins cites "the way he slides down some words and hits others -- the intonation, the emphasis, the pauses and the silences."

Winston Churchill rocked it in a chant of anapests (da-da-DA): "We shall FIGHT on the BEACHes . . . we shall FIGHT in the FIELDS . . . we shall FIGHT in the HILLS . . . we shall NEVer surRENDer."

He knew about the ancient Greeks controlling and defending against the power of oratory by codifying it with labels you heard once in college and forgot: asyndeton, litotes, epistrophe. For instance, here Churchill is using the technique of anaphora, repeating phrases at the beginning of clauses. Note, too, that in defense of England he uses nothing but Old English words except for "surrender," which comes from the French.


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