Archive for Language and politics

Metaphor of the month

Joshua David Stein, "The Loud, Empty Word That Defines President-Elect Trump", The Daily Beast 1/1/2017:

Perhaps because there are so many casualties already accruing and so much damage already being done, it has gone less noted than it should that among the incoming Trump administration’s most endangered victims is the English language itself. Nouns shudder. Adjectives cower. The entire edifice of grammar quivers with fear as January 20th nears.

Of course, one could make the argument that at a time when all the groceries are up in the air, we must prioritize what to catch. Climate change and war are eggs; perhaps language is a loaf of bread.

But language, as any linguist, Lacanian or deliman knows, is the sandwich within which stuff our world. If a thing doesn’t fit inside our words, we can’t bring it to our mouths. It is fundamentally indigestible.

I'm going to guess that that there's a missing "we" in "the sandwich within which (we) stuff our world".

And are "linguist, Lacanian or deliman" three epistemological alternatives? Or are Lacanian and deliman subtypes of linguist? Compare "cow, sheep or goat" to "cow, Guernsey or Holstein"…

Morris Halle once told me about a lecture in Paris after which someone — perhaps a Lacanian — asked him suspiciously to define his philosophical orientation. Morris's answer: "Does a shoemaker need a philosophical orientation? If so, then that's mine as well." In this case, I guess I'll follow Morris in identifying myself as an adherent of the deliman school. Though someone that I respect has been trying to persuade me that Jacques Lacan was not, in Noam Chomsky's words, "an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan". So stay tuned.

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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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Smog the people

The smog in north China has been particularly horrendous for the past few weeks.  In some cities, the PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrograms) index is over 1000 micrograms per cubic meter, and in some places has even reached above 1400.  The World Health Organization recommends 25 micrograms per cubic meter as the maximum safe level.  This means that the PM2.5 index in many Chinese cities often reaches levels that are 40 or 50 times greater than those recommended by the WHO.

Given these dangerous conditions, people naturally want to complain and criticize, but in China you get in trouble when you complain and criticize.  One way to release one's ire while hopefully avoiding arrest is to use satire, sarcasm, and irony (in addition to puns and romanization, which we have often documented on Language Log).

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Last new term of the year in China

Starting around a year or two ago, the expression "Zhào jiārén 赵家人" ("Zhao family member") emerged as a coded reference for politically powerful and wealthy elites in contemporary Chinese society.  See Kiki Zhao's penetrating post on the NYT Sinosphere blog:

"Leveling Criticism at China’s Elite, Some Borrow Words From the Past" (1/4/16)

For the literary background of "Zhào jiārén 赵家人" ("Zhao family member"), see this post:

"Lu Xun and the Zhao family" (1/5/16)

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Theorists of post-modern politics

I was surprised to learn that Scottie Nell Hughes has a broadcast communications/political science degree from the University of Tennessee at Martin, rather than a degree in literary theory from Florida International University. This makes her ideas about the relationship of texts to states of affairs all the more remarkable, since she has apparently developed them independently of Stanley Fish, rather than under his guidance.

Here's the most recent evidence of her theoretical sophistication:


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Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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Telephone or telegraph?

There's a controversy over whether President Xi Jinping called President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the November 8th election.  The problem is summarized in this passage from The Economist:

Chinese officials pay obsessive attention to ensuring the Communist Party’s line is reflected accurately by the country’s main media. But Mr Trump’s victory caught them in a muddle. Several outlets said Mr Xi had telephoned his compliments to Mr Trump. But Mr Trump said he had spoken to or heard from most foreign leaders—except Mr Xi. The phone call did not take place until six days after the vote. In most countries such a mistake would be insignificant, the result of sloppy reporting or ambiguous phrasing (in Mandarin, the phrase “sent a congratulatory note” can also mean “congratulate by phone”). In China it suggested that media overlords were not sure what line to take.

(emphasis added)

From The Economist, November 19th, 2016, "China" section, page 59 of British edition.

"Weighing up Telangpu:  A victory for China?  Some Chinese see much to like in Mr Trump" (11/19/16)

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Big-league metaphors: the role of sports language in American politics

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining fellow Language Logger Barbara Partee on Josh Chetwynd's KGNU radio show, "The Real Deal in Sports." Josh is the author of The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors, and he spoke to Barbara and me about how the metaphorical language of sports pervades American politics (especially in the latest presidential campaign). We mulled over how those metaphors shape our political discourse, and callers joined in with their own thoughts. You can listen to the hourlong broadcast here.

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"Comrade" between communism and gaydom

In "Call me comrade … party requires members to resurrect Maoist term to signal equality:  Outdated greeting seen by analysts as a distraction and unworkable in today’s world" (SCMP, 11/13/16), Sidney Leng writes:

A written guideline requiring Communist Party members to once again address each other as “comrade” is an outdated resurrection of Maoist rhetoric and unworkable in today’s world, analysts said.

In the latest guideline on cadres’ political conduct issued earlier this month, the Party brought back an old political etiquette that used to be closely associated with the country’s revolutionary period, when calling each other comrades created a sense of equality and closeness similar to that of siblings.

“All cadres should now greet each other as comrades within the Party,” the guideline states.

In modern times, however, such outdated greetings could lead to confusion, since the term comrade, or tongzhi in Chinese, is also used to refer to homosexuals.

Politically, analysts said, the revival of the term was just another sign of Xi’s continued push to centralise his authority.

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T-shirt slogans

A 28-year-old Chinese citizen of Korean ethnicity, the activist Pyong Kwon (the Korean reading of his name would be Gweon Pyeong 권평; MSM Quán Píng 權平), has disappeared after telling a friend that he was planning to wear the t-shirt pictured below on the street on October 1, China's National Day.

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How "whopping" is 78 percent monosyllables?

The other day, someone asked me about the claim that "a whopping 78 percent of the words that Trump uses are monosyllabic".

We've previously debunked the idea that Trump's speeches aim at a fourth-grade reading level ("More Flesch-Kincaid grade level nonsense", 10/23/2015).

And long ago, we took aim at careless assertions about how young people/media/txting/etc. are degrading the language to the point that "the top 20 words used … account for a third of all words": "Britain's scientists risk becoming hypocritical laughing stocks, research suggests", 12/16/2006; "Only 20 words for a third of what they say: A replication", 12/16/2006; "Vicky Pollard's revenge", 1/2/2007.

So here's a quick evaluation of that "78 percent" claim.

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The view from Dalriada

Brendan O'Leary, "The Dalriada Document: Towards a Multinational Compromise that Respects Democratic Diversity in the United Kingdom", The Political Quarterly 10/27/2016:

Words and abbreviations matter, especially when they mislead. Brexit cannot and will not happen because ‘Britain’, a geographical expression, is not a polity, a sovereign state or a member state of the European Union, and cannot exit from any political organisation, let alone the European Union. The new Prime Minister Theresa May's early insistence that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was not only a tautology which disguised her cabinet's indecision about what exit might mean, but was also nonsensical because the portmanteau has no political referent.

To insist that Ukexit rather than Brexit is the correct word for the phenomenon that may unfold is not pedantic or professorial quibbling. ‘Britain’ is inaccurate shorthand for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—for which more appropriate abbreviations are either the United Kingdom or the UK (UKGB & NI is an impossible mouthful). To use Brexit does verbal violence to the nature of the UK, which is a double union-state, not a British nation-state. It is tiresome to remind British people that Britain is not greater than Great Britain, and that Great Britain is part of the UK, not its entirety: tiresome but necessary.

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Debate quantification: How MAD did he get?

During the last presidential debate Donald Trump started off speaking in a deliberate and controlled manner that soon gave way to his usual animated style. In an informal exchange, Cynthia McLemore observed that he was manipulating his pitch range, as he did in the second debate as well — beginning with a narrow range that dramatically widened as the debate progressed. This post is an attempt to quantify that pitch range variation with a metric Neville Ryant and I have found useful in other work.

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