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.
Archive for Rhetoric
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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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.
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 —
___and other countries —
Donald Trump deploys this pattern rarely but effectively — and I'd be surprised to hear it from Hillary Clinton.
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.
Paul Ryan's July 4 statement (emphasis added):
On this year’s Fourth, we can celebrate the historic document that was signed—and the self-evident truths it declared. We can celebrate the historic battles that were fought so that those truths would embrace all of our people. We can remember the extraordinary men and women, so dedicated to those truths, who died on this day—and the millions of others whose names we’ll never know. Or we can remember—and give thanks—that we live in a country where all these things are possible. We still believe in those self-evident truths. We still struggle to live up to them. And really, what that struggle represents is the pursuit of happiness. So today, with great gratitude, we celebrate our independence.
Could Speaker Ryan (or the intern who wrote this statement) have meant "on this day" to modify "We can remember"? Or are invited to remember the people who died in historic battles specifically on July 4? Puzzling.
Update — Jenny Chu points out that Adams, Jefferson and Monroe died on July 4. I was led away from that interpretation by the previous discussion of "historic battles" and the reference to "extraordinary men and women" who died on that day, as well as the following "millions of others". And now I also wonder what we're meant to understand by "all these things" — the document? the truths? the battles? the deaths? All of them?
Perhaps this message is a lightly-adapted version of an all-purpose patriotic-holiday exhortation.
[h/t Adam Rosenthal]
There's a hip/ironic rhetorical technique that involves mocking a statement by repeating bits of it as phrasal fragments. I was surprised to see this technique employed extensively in the "Plaintiffs' response in opposition to defendant Donald J. Trump's motion for summary judgment, or in the alternative partial summary judgment":
Donald Trump is too busy to be honest. So says Trump himself, who explains that he reviewed his own promises about his Trump University (“TU”) only “very quickly.” And therefore, he deserves summary judgment. Because he was too busy. To be honest. In addition, Trump explains that he was incapable of being honest because he “is not a lawyer.” And therefore, he deserves summary judgment. Because he was incapable of being honest. Due to not being a lawyer. Due to his integrity infirmities, Trump explains that he resorted to “marketing BS” to induce students to enroll in his Trump University. And therefore, he deserves summary judgment. Because he resorted to “marketing BS.” To induce students to enroll in his illegal “Trump University.”
Trump denies operating and managing the “fraudulent marketing scheme” alleged here because he only starred in the marketing materials; signed the marketing materials; corrected the marketing materials; and approved the marketing materials. And therefore, he deserves summary judgment. Because he did not operate and manage the Trump University “fraudulent marketing scheme.” He only starred in the marketing materials. Signed them. Corrected them. And approved them.
Trump wrote his motion for summary judgment for a District Court in Bizarro World. In this District Court, however, it is wholly without merit. Plaintiff respectfully requests that the Court deny Trump’s motion and set this case for trial as quickly as possible. On earth. In the Southern District of California.
Perhaps some of the lawyers among our readers can comment on whether this document is as unusual as it seems to me to be.
[h/t David Wessel]
For nearly a year, I've been describing aspects of Donald Trump's rhetorical style — see e.g. "Trump's eloquence" (8/5/2015), "More Flesch-Kincaid grade-level nonsense" (10/23/2015), "Donald Trump's repetitive rhetoric" (12/5/2015), "Trump's rhetorical style" (12/26/2015), "Trump the Thing Explainer?" (3/19/2016), "Elaborate interiors and plain language" (6/3/2016). Behind those observations was a question: where else have I seen or heard this pointillistic, repetitive style?
This morning, I suddenly realized that I've been Doing It Wrong. In transcribing his speeches, I've deployed punctuation and line divisions to represent the structure. But if I remove most of that visual prosody, suddenly the stylistic model leaps off the page. Consider this clip from his recent rally in Atlanta 6/15/2016:
You know the Republicans honestly folks our leaders our leaders have to get tougher. This is too tough to do it alone but you know what I think I'm gonna be forced to. I think I'm going to be forced to. Our leaders have to get a lot tougher. And be quiet, just please be quiet don't talk please be quiet. Just be quiet to the leaders. Because they have to get tougher they have to get sharper they have to get smarter we have to have our Republicans either stick together or let me just do it by myself I'll do very well. I'm going to do very well. OK? I'm going to do very well.
A lot of people thought I should do that anyway. But I'll just do it very nicely by myself I think you're going to have a very good result I think we'll be very happy I'll run as a Republican. Just I don't know you know the endorsement thing by the way I've gotten tremendous endorsements but if I don't get them that's OK.
Or maybe David Crystal does — as reported in Dan Bilefsky, "Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style", NYT 6/9/2016. Better late than never, in any case.
For some background, see
"The new semiotics of punctuation", 11/7/2012
"Aggressive periods and the popularity of linguistics", 11/26/2013
"Generational punctuation differences again", 8/1/2014
"Query: Punctuation in personal digital media", 2/23/2015
And even: Jessica Bennett, "When your punctuation says it all (!)", NYT 2/27/2015
Emily Rauhala has an entertaining, enlightening article about a startlingly improbable new kind of PRC officialese:
The article is so well written that I wouldn't want to try to steal Rauhala's thunder, so I will just quote the first part, and encourage you to read the rest, including clicking on the embedded links, some of which are hilarious (bear in mind that the funniest links go directly to official Chinese government posts).
Negative reviews of Donald Trump's rhetorical style are all over the place. A small sample might start with Gary Schmidgall, "What would Shakespeare make of Trump?", The Chronicle Review 2/7/2016:
The current campaign’s race to the bottom of the rhetorical barrel, of course, has been led by Donald Trump. Did you know "trumpery" was Shakespeare’s word for fancy garments or showy rubbish?
We can add Lucy Ferris, "Diagramming Trump", Chronicle of Higher Education 8/7/2015:
This isn’t fancy syntactical footwork on Trump’s part. It’s just bad rhetoric.
Or Stephen Henderson, "Trump, 'The Princess Bride' and Plato, or how to abuse rhetoric", Detroit Free Press 4/9/2016:
Trump’s rhetorical style […] so easily dismisses complexity and nuance and embraces fluid but incompatible dichotomies of harsh brutality and feel-good optimism.
Simplistic speech is a hazard of the campaign trail, which by nature eschews details for slogans, nuance for battle cries. But Trump's sins are excessive. […]
Rhetoric matters, not least because it reflects thought — or it should. Used wisely, rhetoric can make complex ideas understandable or rally people behind a common cause. But absent guiding morality or philosophy, Plato wrote, rhetoric is nothing but empty words.
Powerpointsapper, "The Gettysburg Address – the Donald Trump Version", Angry Staff Officer 3/8/2016:
It was a long time ago – I don’t think anyone can even remember, but I can remember, I have a great memory, I’ve got the best memory ever. These guys, they made the most special thing, really, really special. Where everyone was free and everything was great, just the way I’ve made America, I really, really mean that.
This, of course, translates the first sentence of the original:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Brad DeLong thinks that the way to understand the appeal of Donald Trump is to see him as a kind of big-city billionaire version of Willie Stark ("Nail 'em up!!!!", 1/21/2016):
Methinks it is time to go reread Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men again… […]
[T]he rise and durability of Donald Trump is a zero/probability event. And, as David Kreps taught me many years ago, rationally-updating one's beliefs in the wake.of a zero-probability event is a… genuinely hard problem. For a zero probability event to happen means that your visualization of the Cosmic All is simply wrong–or it would not strike you as a zero probability event.
However, the herds and hordes of journalists and political scientists are not coming to grips with this. Rather than come to grips with this, they work hard to “save the phenomena” and save their models–analyzing the rise and durability of Donald Trump by making the smallest possible tweaks to what they thought last year. They are not stepping back and absorbing the lesson. They do not want to recognize that the rise and durability of Trump teaches them that what they thought last year was wrong. They do not want to face the reality that they need to pretty much throw everything away and start over.
But if they were willing to throw pretty much everything away and start over, the place to start over is with Robert Penn Warren[.]