Archive for Rhetoric

Resisting reunification

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Similes for quality of computer code

I must admit to having enjoyed the series of savage similes about quality of computer program code presented in three xkcd comic strips. They show a female character, known to aficionados as Ponytail, reluctantly agreeing to take a critical look at some code that the male character Cueball has written. Almost at first sight, she begins to describe it using utterly brutal similes. In the first strip (at http://xkcd.com/1513) she announces that reading it is “like being in a house built by a child using nothing but a hatchet and a picture of a house.” But Ponytail is not done: there is more bile and contempt where that came from.

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Quantifying Donald Trump’s rhetoric

David Beaver & Jason Stanley, “Unlike all previous U.S. presidents, Trump almost never mentions democratic ideals“, Washington Post 2/7/2017:

The central norms of liberal democratic societies are liberty, justice, truth, public goods and tolerance. To our knowledge, no one has proposed a metric by which to judge a politician’s commitment to these democratic ideals.

A direct way suggested itself to us: Why not simply add up the number of times those words and their synonyms are deployed? If the database is large enough, this should provide a rough measure of a politician’s commitment to these ideals. How does Trump’s use of these words compare to that of his presidential predecessors?

At Language Log, the linguist Mark Liberman graphed how unusual Trump’s inaugural speech was, graphing the frequency of critical words used in each of the past 50 years’ inaugural speeches — and showing how much more nationalist language, and how much less democratic language Trump used than did his predecessors.

We expanded this project, looking at the language in Trump’s inaugural address as well as in 61 campaign speeches since 2015. We compared that to the language used in all 57 prior inaugural speeches, from George Washington’s on. The comparison gives us a picture of Trump’s rhetorical emphases since his campaign began, and hence of his most deeply held political ideals.

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Inaugural addresses: SAD.

A few days ago, I posted some f0-difference dipole plots to visualize the contrast between Barack Obama’s syllable-level pitch dynamics and Donald Trump’s (“Tunes, political and geographical“, 2/2/2017):

Obama 2009 Inaugural Address Trump 2017 Inaugural Address

For another take on the same contrast in political prosody, I ran a “Speech Activity Detector” (SAD) on the recordings of the same two speeches, and used the results to create density plots of the relationship between speech-segment durations and immediately following silence-segment durations:

Obama 2009 Inaugural Address Trump 2017 Inaugural Address

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“Big mistake”: Infectious rhetorical style

Josh Solomon, “Largest heroin bust in Hernando history comes with image of Donald Trump“, Tampa Bay Times, 2/3/2017:

One pile of wax paper envelops that contained individually wrapped doses of heroin bore the name of El Chapo, the infamous Mexican drug lord.

Another pile had envelopes with the name of Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Yet another pile had the name and likeness of President Donald Trump — a joke Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi didn’t think was funny.

“All I want to say to this drug dealer is, ‘Big mistake by putting the president’s picture on this,’ ” Bondi said while holding up one of the little white squares. “Big mistake. Because he is going to be our most fierce advocate in taking this junk off of our streets. Can you believe this? Big mistake.”

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Tunes, political and geographical

Over the past decade, I’ve noticed that Barack Obama’s speaking style often involves short, definite-sounding phrases with steeply falling pitch. For an example, take this clip from his 2009 inaugural address:

I tried to quantify — or at least visualize — some of the temporal aspects of this pattern in “Political sound and silence“, 2/8/2016, comparing Obama with G.W. Bush in terms of the distribution of speech segment and silence segment durations.

We can visualize (some aspects of) the associated pitch patterns by looking at dipole difference statistics of f0 estimates, as discussed e.g. in “More on pitch and time intervals in speech“, 10/15/2016; “Carl Kasell: diabolus in musica?“, 11/5/2016; “Some visualizations of prosody“, 10/23/2016. This analysis yields a two-dimensional density plot, where one axis represents time differences and the other axis represents f0 differences. And a syllable-scale plot of f0 dipole difference statistics, from the whole of Obama’s 2009 inaugural, does support the intuition about the preponderance of rapid local f0 falls:

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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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