Archive for Rhetoric

Vocative self-address, from ancient Greece to Donald Trump

Earlier this week on Twitter, Donald Trump took credit for a surge in the Consumer Confidence Index, and with characteristic humility, concluded the tweet with "Thanks Donald!"

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Really?!

My son, Tom, who is closely attuned to current speech mannerisms, explained to me the nuances of a particular way of saying "really" that conveys both incredulousness and disapprobation.  It's not the same as the rhetorical "really?" with rising intonation, but ends with a slightly falling intonation, or is nearly flat.  It means something like "you're not really going to do that, are you?" or, "you are dummmmb, and I do not approve."

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"On the difference between writing and speaking"

William Hazlitt, "Essay XIV. On the difference between Writing and Speaking" (c1825), tells us that

The most dashing orator I ever heard is the flattest writer I ever read.

And Hazlitt argues that the written transcript reveals the true emptiness of the speech:

The deception took place before; now it is removed. "Bottom! thou art translated!" might be placed as a motto under most collections of printed speeches that I have had the good fortune to meet with, whether originally addressed to the people, the senate, or the bar.

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Two words for truth?

The "No Word For X" trope is a favorite item in the inventory of pop-culture rhetorical moves — the Irish have no word for "sex", the Germans have no word for "mess", the Japanese have no word for "compliance", the Bulgarians have no word for "integrity", none of the Romance languages have a word for "accountability", and so on …

In today's New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal presents an unusual variant: "Two Words For X". Specifically, he advises us "To Understand Trump, Learn Russian":

The Russian language has two words for truth — a linguistic quirk that seems relevant to our current political climate, especially because of all the disturbing ties between the newly elected president and the Kremlin.  

The word for truth in Russian that most Americans know is “pravda” — the truth that seems evident on the surface. It’s subjective and infinitely malleable, which is why the Soviet Communists called their party newspaper “Pravda.” Despots, autocrats and other cynical politicians are adept at manipulating pravda to their own ends.  

But the real truth, the underlying, cosmic, unshakable truth of things is called “istina” in Russian. You can fiddle with the pravda all you want, but you can’t change the istina.

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Not just for metric calibration anymore

Larry Horn, following up on "Hyperbolic scalar indifference" (7/14/2015) and "Expletive deficits" (7/18/2015), points to the following passage from Augusten Burrough's 2003 memoir Dry:

Background: Augusten, 90 days sober after a stay in PRIDE, a gay rehab facility in Duluth, followed by group and one-on-one sessions and AA meetings back in Manhattan, has fallen for Foster, a guy from group who's incredibly hot but also problematic—off-limits not only because you’re not allowed to get involved with someone else from group but because he’s just relapsed and is smoking crack again. Augusten and his British recovering-crack-addict-temporary-roommate Hayden are discussing the perils of Foster over an Indian dinner.    

"At least I can understand your attraction to him, after seeing him”, Hayden says, breaking off a piece of papadum.

“He is possibly the most attractive man I have ever seen in my life. He’s quite literally breathtaking. I no longer blame you at all for your shallowness and lack of judgment.” […]  

 “I don’t know, my obsession with Foster is kind of fading. It’s like he’s severed my give-a-shit nerve. I’m over him.”  [Emphasis added]

Larry adds: "Unclear where this particular nerve is located."

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AND Trump's rhetorical style again

Listening to Donald Trump's 10/14/2016 speech in Charlotte NC, I noticed something that I hadn't noticed in listening to his earlier speeches. He often  uses a loud isolated monosyllable as a way of transitioning between phrases — and perhaps also as a substitute for the filled pauses that he almost never uses. Some of these transitional syllables are particles like and, but, so,yet; some of them are subject pronouns, especially we. These are all words that are usually "cliticized", that is, merged phonologically with a following word — and Trump sometimes pronounces them that way. But here's a sample of his isolated ANDs from the Charlotte speech:

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Sex, lies, and childishness; and insomnia

It's a bit early for Language Log to do any analysis of the presidential debate last night. Where I live, it came on after 2 a.m., and where Mark lives it is still only 5:15 a.m. right now. But Vox has already analysed the interruption rate, a well-known index of gender in speech style. Trump interrupted Clinton exactly three times as often as she interrupted him. I think Language Log can confidently affirm that here we have convincing linguistic evidence that Trump is male and Clinton is female.

But one other thing I noticed, as I struggled to stay awake in the darkness of the middle of the night here in Edinburgh, with the bedside radio softly relaying the debate via the BBC World Service, was the astonishingly childish nature of many of Trump's interruptions.

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Big bad modifier order

This is a quote from Mark Forsyth's book The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. And Nicholas Feinberg asks

This claim seems iffy to me, but it's interesting – have you heard of this before? Do you know of anything related that I could read, or anyone else I should ask?

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The narrow end of the funnel

The big political story of the past 24 hours: Stephen K. Bannon, formerly the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, has taken over as "chief executive" of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

The big linguistic story of the past 24 hours, at least here at Language Log: an exchange between Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum about the rhetorical style of spontaneous speech, as it applies to the linguistic analysis of Donald Trump's rallies.

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Internecine strife at Language Log?

Are we seeing the first signs of discord at Language Log Plaza? Mark Liberman seems to be flatly rebutting Geoff Pullum's "no structure at all" remark about what he calls "Trump's aphasia." Mark maintains that Trump's speaking style is no different in kind from any other human's spontaneous speech, even crediting him with "eloquence." Geoff, by contrast, seems to regard Trump as barely capable of expressing himself in human language. This looks like the beginnings of a proper scholarly punch-up. Is Liberman pro-Trump and Pullum anti? Have Mark and Geoff fallen out?

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The rhetorical style of spontaneous speech

I want to follow up on my post about Daniel Libit's presentation of reporters' and transcriptionists' complaints about Donald Trump's speaking style ("The em-dash candidate", 8/15/2016). Libit uses words like "unintelligible", "jumble", "inarticulate", and he is far from the first person to offer a characterization along these lines. A year ago, Geoff Pullum used words and phrases like "aphasia", "no structure at all", "barely a coherent thought" ("Trump's aphasia", 8/5/2015).

I've argued in response that these observers have been misled by "the apparent incoherence of much transcribed extemporized speech, even when the same material is completely comprehensible and even eloquent in audio or audio-visual form" ("Trump's eloquence", 8/5/2015).

In order to underline this point, I thought I'd exhibit a randomly-selected passage from another unscripted spoken-word performance by someone who doesn't speak in paragraphs. That description generally applies to the rhetorical tradition of stand-up comedy, I think.

So I picked a comedian and a performance at random — the start of a performances at Beacon Theater in 2013 (?) by the comedian Louis CK. And you'll see that the clip has many of the same characteristics as Trump's spontaneous performances — repetitions, incomplete phrases, digressions, …

In fact Louis CK is much less fluent than Trump in certain ways, such as a much higher rate of UM/UH usage and of fluent-self-corrections. But otherwise, the similarity is remarkable.

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Trump's prosody

Yesterday I showed a pitch contour from one of Hillary Clinton's speeches ("Political /t/ lenition", 8/7/2016), and promised to take a broader look at her characteristic prosodic styles. But today I'm going to feature one of Donald's prosodic stylings. From the Trump/Pence rally in Des Moines, Iowa, 8/5/2016:

We're gonna use great business leaders
___to work with our generals —
we're gonna make great trade deals
___where we're getting absolutely killed —
with China
___and other countries —

Donald Trump deploys this pattern rarely but effectively — and I'd be surprised to hear it from Hillary Clinton.

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"But I was going to say that but now I won't say it"

One of Donald Trump's characteristic rhetorical devices is praeteritio ("passing over"), where the speaker says something by saying they're not going to say it. An especially nice specimen came up in a rally in Iowa on Thursday:


So should I hit these people? No I won't.
But so here's what happened.
So this very very great governor —
like your governor's a great governor —
this very great guy's a friend of mine calls me up.
How's it going?
I said man! I been hit.
These people are hittin me,
I'm gonna go — and I was all set —
I was gonna go, and I was gonna talk about each individual one of them,
I was gonna say that De Blasio's the worst mayor in the history of our city but I couldn't say it,
oh he's a terrible mayor,
probably won't be there too long cuz he's got problems like you wouldn't believe,
but he's a terrible mayor.
But I was gonna say that but now I won't say it.
But- but I was gonna talk about other people, so
viciously because I have so many things to say.
And he goes no, what are you doing?
I said, what are you talkin about?
He said don't hit there.

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