Archive for Language and politics

The history of Trumpian "big league" (now even bigger league!)

Donald Trump, as we have discussed a few times now, is fond of using big league as a post-verbal adjunct, though it's often misheard as bigly. (See: "Bigly," 2/26/16; "The world wants 'bigly'," 5/5/16; "Don't let 'bigly' catch on," 10/18/16.) On the night of Wednesday's presidential debate, UC Berkeley's Susan Lin helpfully shared a spectrogram of the relevant utterance from Trump, demonstrating the "velar pinch" associated with the final /g/ of big league. The spectrogram first appeared in the Facebook group Friends of Berkeley Linguists and then was tweeted by Jennifer Nycz and Tara McAllister Byun.

After it circulated on Twitter, Lin's spectrogram then got incorporated into news stories from Mashable, Thrillist, Mic, and Washington Post's The Fix, presented as the authoritative word on a subject that has clearly been on a lot of people's minds. (Philip Bump, in his piece for The Fix, noted that on the night of the debate, "bigly donald trump" came in third among all Trump-related Google searches, after "donald trump iraq" and "donald trump iraq war.")

Now that the phoneticians have spoken, this is a good time to look at the history of Trump's peculiar usage, which shows no sign of abating. Just yesterday, at a rally at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Trump ratcheted up big league by pairing it with even bigger league — though of course many people heard it as even biggerly.

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Ultimate language threat

The news these days, I find, seldom merits a smile. But at one news story I heard at lunchtime today I actually laughed out loud, alone in my kitchen. Michel Barnier, charged with heading the EU side in the complex forthcoming negotiations that will set the terms for the UK's exit from the European Union, has found a way to hurt the British more deeply, and put them more at a disadvantage, than I ever would have thought possible. It is so fiendish it ought to be illegal, yet it violates no law or basic principle of human rights. It is simply wonderful in its passive-aggressive hostility. I take my hat off to him. He has announced that he wants all the negotiations with the British team to be conducted in French.

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Bob Dylan's poetry and the Nobel Prize

A. E. STALLINGS says: "At the news that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, poets, at least judging from my Facebook feed, were either very much pro- or very much con- (often along generational lines), delighted or outraged…"

I found I fell into neither camp. At first, I was pleased to hear the news, and judged the Nobel committee's view of Dylan to be exactly right: although his early recordings suggest he could hardly win prizes as a singer, guitarist, or harmonica player (don't confuse being strikingly different and new with being highly skilled), he did deserve to be considered seriously as a significant 20th-century poet. So I started with no negative feelings at all about the decision.

And then I looked at some of his lyrics in written form to see if I could find good evidence to cite for this, and found that even my favorite songs looked truly feeble on the page. I responded to some of them when they were originally sung; but looking at them now, I couldn't find anything of high poetic quality at all. And mentally putting them back in their musical context didn't help.

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The reality of censorship in the PRC

When we published the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary from Hawaii in 1996, the original American edition had this definition for Lin Biao:  "veteran Communist military leader; Mao Zedong's designated successor until his mysterious death".

Imagine our surprise when we discovered in the licensed edition of the dictionary from Shanghai the following definition:  "veteran Communist military leader; ringleader of counterrevolutionary group (during Cultural Revolution)".

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"People's Re-fu*king of Chee-na"

The following video was posted to YouTube on 10/11/16:

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The Donald's THE, again

It's not really true that "you use 'the' in front of objects, not people" — today's NYT is full of phrases like "until now the Russians have been on board with regard chemical weapons"; "It is also, as the French like to say, digestible"; "a town in which the inhabitants were abandoned to their executioner". But Diana Prichard is on to something, and she's not the first to notice it.

See "Phenomenal to the women", 8/11/2015; "Ask the gays", 6/16/2016; "The NOUNs", 9/5/2016.

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A Trumpling situation

"Paul Ryan Refers to Furor Over Trump as Elephant in the Room", Bloomberg News 10/8/2016:

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan spoke at the GOP “Fall Fest” unity event in his home district in Wisconsin. While he did not directly address Donald Trump’s crude and sexually aggressive remarks about women in a 2005 recording, he did refer to the furor over the comments as “a bit of an elephant in the room.” Ryan did hear boos, as did Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, who was heckled by a Trump supporter.

The passage in question:

let me just start off by saying
there is a bit of an elephant in the room
and it is a troubling situation I'm serious it is
I put out a statement about this last night
I meant what I said and it's still how I feel

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"Like a bitch"?

The reaction to the video of Donald Trump's 2005 discussion with Billy Bush has focused primarily on its rape-culture aspects, including passages like this one:

Trump: I got to use some tictacs just in case I start kissing her
_______you know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful-
_______I just start kissing them

_______it's like a magnet just kiss
_______I don't even wait
_______and when you're a star they let you do it
_______you can do anything
Bush: whatever you want
Trump: grab em by the pussy
Bush: {laughs}
Trump: I can do anything

But I want to focus on one of Trump's phrases that's gotten less attention:

Trump: I moved on her like a bitch

When I first heard that, I thought Trump was using "'like a bitch" as a general-purpose intensifier applied to his own actions. But then I realized that canine similes are one of his favorite ways of dehumanizing others, and so he must have meant this one to apply to Nancy O'Dell, the woman that he "moved on" in this particular case.

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A non-apology for the ages

David Fahrenthold, "Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005", The Washington Post 10/7/2016:

Donald Trump bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation caught on a hot microphone, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it,” according to a video obtained by The Washington Post.

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Nevada: "odd" or "add"?

"Trump Tells Nevadans How to Pronounce 'Nevada' … Incorrectly", ABCNews 10/5/2016:

Donald Trump raised some eyebrows in the Silver State Wednesday night when he told Nevadans how to pronounce their state's name — differently than they do.  

"Heroin overdoses are surging and meth overdoses in Nevada, Nuh-VAH-da," he told the crowd in Reno. "And you know what I said? I said when I came out here I said nobody says it the other day, has to be Nuh-VAH-da.  

"And if you don't say it correctly and it didn’t happen to me but it happened to a friend of mine he was killed."  

Generally, the state's name is pronounced Nuh-VAD-uh.


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Rudy off the island (constraint)?

Nick Rossoll, "Giuliani Says Trump Better For US ‘Than a Woman'", ABC News 10/2/2016:

Speaking of reports that Donald Trump claimed a $916 million loss on his 1995 income taxes, Giuliani said: “Don’t you think a man who has this kind of economic genius is a lot better for the United States than a woman, and the only thing she’s ever produced is a lot of work for the FBI checking out her emails?”

Rudy Giuliani has gotten a fair amount of flack for this comment, partly for describing losing $916 million as "economic genius", and partly for (apparently) saying that "a man … is a lot better for the United States than a woman". But John Cowan thinks that the second criticism is unfair, and Rudy is only guilty of stumbling into a syntactic "island violation" and getting out of it in an awkward way.

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Trumpchant in B flat

The opening phrase of Donald Trump's speech in Mannheim PA, 10/1/2016, was sung on a single well-controlled pitch:

The fundamental frequency of this monotone chant is about 238 Hz, to which the closest tempered pitch class, at concert A=440, would be the B flat below middle C at 233 Hz. And the next phrase is about a semitone lower, at about 218 Hz, pretty close to A 220:

I haven't heard this type of chanting before from Mr. Trump, or indeed from any other political figure. (But see "Trump's prosody", 8/8/2016, for a different sort of sing-song delivery…)

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Disfluencies and smiles

A couple of days ago, in a café in Paris,  someone noticed a young woman intently watching the Clinton/Trump debate, and commented "Isn't watching the debate so much better than working?" But the debate watcher was Ye Tian, a postdoc at the Laboratoire de linguistique formelle, Université Paris Diderot (Paris 7), part of a project whose acronym is DUEL — "Disfluencies, Exclamations and Laughter in Dialogue". And so her interest in the video was a professional one, with preliminary results that she published as a blog post here. Ye Tian's analysis is reproduced below, with her permission, as a guest post.

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