The shape of things to come?

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Writing about Donald Trump’s language, Ben MacIntyre (“Trump’s cleverest trick is sounding stupid“, The Times 5/13/2016) brings in the usual suspects: Basic English, Flesch-Kincaid readability, “bigly”. He starts this way:

In 1930, the English linguist CK Ogden invented a pared down, simplified form of language as a tool for teaching English as a second tongue. His “Basic English” included a vocabulary of just 850 words, 18 verbs, and a radically reduced grammar. Anyone with a grasp of Basic English would be able to understand anyone else with the same rudimentary skills.  

HG Wells was intrigued and horrified by the idea, and in his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come he depicted a totalitarian government ruling a world in which Basic English becomes the global lingua franca.  

Donald Trump has forged his own Basic English, a blunt, reduced, idiomatic form of speech that is comprehensible to any American with the educational skills of the average ten-year-old. Trumpspeak appals his critics, delights his supporters with its directness, and represents one of the keys to his successful bid for the Republican nomination.

Since the article is behind a rather pricey paywall, I’ve reproduced the full text here. I feel morally entitled to do this because, as Ben Zimmer pointed out to me, MacIntyre lifted without attribution the list of 13 most Trumpish words from my post “The most Trumpish (and Bushish) words“, 9/5/2015. This list was reproduced and discussed in Emily Atkin, “What Language Experts Find So Strange About Donald Trump“, 9/16/2015 — with these nice pictures:

Specifically, what MacIntyre says about this is:

His favourite word is “I”. His fourth-favourite word is “Trump”. Eight out of his 13 most-used words are monosyllables.

In fact, MacIntyre copied mistakenly — these are not Trump’s “13 most-used words”, but rather what I called “the top 13 words at Donald Trump’s end of a vocabulary comparison with Jeb Bush”. For details of the comparison method, see the original post.

And MacIntyre relies without attribution on stories like this one to get to “educational skills of the average ten-year-old” trope:

The Flesch-Kincaid test was invented by the US Navy to assess readability. A text is run through an algorithm measuring syllables, words and sentence construction, and assigned a level equivalent to a school grade. Mr Trump’s language measured in the fourth grade (age nine-ten).

If he’d read my post “More Flesch-Kincaid grade-level nonsense“, 10/23/2015, he’d know that this test relies only on word length in syllables and sentence length in words, so that the resulting number depends crucially on punctuation choices — and a more plausible punctuation of Trump’s transcripts produces estimates as high as grade 12.5. (Not that those revised estimates are worth anything — any journalist who takes the Flesch-Kincaid test seriously is in dire need of remediation.)

And unfortunately, MacIntyre follows the rest of the journalistic herd in mis-hearing “big league” as “bigly” — for details, see “The world wants ‘bigly’“, 5/5/2016.

But the most unfortunate part of this unfortunate article is the reference to H.G. Wells’ novel “The Shape of Things to Come“. I wonder whether Mr. MacIntyre has actually read that book, because what it has to say about the nature of Basic English is almost exactly the opposite of the point he’s trying to use it to make.

Consider this passage from Book the Fifth, Chapter 7, “Language and Mental Growth[emphasis added]:

This convenience spread like wildfire after the First Conference of Basra. It was made the official medium of communication throughout the world by the Air and Sea Control, and by 2020 there was hardly anyone in the world who could not talk and understand it.

It is from phonetically spelt Basic English as a new starting-point that the language we write and speak to-day developed, chiefly by the gradual resumption of verbs and idioms from the mother tongue and by the assimilation of foreign terms and phrases. We speak a language of nearly two million words nowadays, a synthetic language in fact, into which roots, words and idioms from every speech in the world have been poured. […]

There are few redundancies in the new English of today and tomorrow, and there is an increasing disposition to take synonyms, and what used to be classified as “rare” or “obsolete” terms, and re-define them to convey some finer shade of meaning. Criticism, in the form of the Dictionary Bureau, scrutinizes, but permits desirable additions. One can feel little doubt about the increasing delicacy and precision of expression to-day if we compare a contemporary book with some English classic of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. That is still quite understandable to us, but in its bareness and occasional ineptitudes it seems halfway back to the limitations and lumberingness of Early English or Gothic.

The fuller the terminology the finer the mind. There can be very little doubt that the brain of a twentieth-century man compared with the brain of an ordinary man to-day, though in no way intrinsically inferior, was a far less polished and well-adjusted implement. It was warped by bad habits, cumbered with a tangle of unsound associations, clogged with unresolved complexes; it was like a fine piece of machinery in a state of dirt and neglect. The modern brain is far more neatly packed and better arranged, cleaner and better lubricated. It not only holds much more, but it uses the larger keyboard of our contemporary language more efficiently.

A bit later in the chapter, we get a view of the fictional frame in which this language developed:

An interesting and valuable group of investigators, whose work still goes on, appeared first in a rudimentary form in the nineteenth century. The leader of this group was a certain Lady Welby (1837-1912), who was frankly considered by most of her contemporaries as an unintelligible bore. She corresponded copiously with all who would attend to her, harping perpetually on the idea that language could be made more exactly expressive, that there should be a “Science of Significs”. C. K. Ogden and a fellow Fellow of Magdalene College, I. A. Richards (1893-1977), were among the few who took her seriously. These two produced a book, The Meaning of Meaning, in 1923 which counts as one of the earliest attempts to improve the language mechanism. Basic English was a by-product of these enquiries. The new Science was practically unendowed, it attracted few workers, and it was lost sight of during the decades of disaster. It was revived only in the early twenty-first century. 

Then Carl Ratan became the centre of a group of workers inspired by the idea of making English more lucid and comprehensive and a truly universal language. His work has expanded into the voluminous organization of the Language Bureau as we know it to-day. The work of that Bureau has been compared to the work of the monetary experts who finally made money exact a hundred and fifty years ago. Just as civilization was held back for some centuries by the imperfections of the money nexus, so we begin to realize to-day that our intellectual progress is by no means so rapid as it might be because of the endless flaws and looseness of the language nexus.

Compare MacIntyre’s version of the origin of Trump’s language:

Educated liberals recoil from Trump’s demotic, reductive way of speaking but for millions of Americans the very bluntness and simplicity of his speeches is the bedrock of his appeal. Trump talks the language of the blue-collar bar, the plainspoken white working-class vernacular of resentment that makes his listeners feel they are being addressed by someone trustworthy. 

If he’s right about this, then his reference to the role of Basic English in The Shape of Things to Come is completely off target.

He does claim that “Trump’s demotic, reductive way of speaking” is in fact carefully calculated:

Trump’s fragmented style appears authentic and unrehearsed, when it is neither.  

He did not always speak this way. Before politics beckoned, this university graduate and best-selling author spoke in the sophisticated syntax of America’s business elite. However, at a time of political disillusionment, he manages to sound forthright and ardent, even when he is really saying nothing at all.

But a few minutes of research into Donald Trump’s history shows that this is nonsense. Trump’s pre-political history includes reality TV shows and professional wrestling. I examined one earlier interview in “Trump the Thing Explainer“, 3/16/2016 — but please examine for yourself this 2007 video clip to experience “the sophisticated syntax of America’s business elite”:

Of course, the private language of America’s business elite is pretty demotic as seen from  the fringes of the British aristocracy.  And it’s clear that Donald Trump’s public rhetoric is simple and direct. But still.



14 Comments

  1. Jason said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 7:52 am

    Perhaps Ben MacIntyre is thinking of Orwell’s 1984, where Basic English is clearly the model used to form the brutally satirical Newspeak.

  2. Brett said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 8:17 am

    @Jason: That would be a pretty egregious error.

  3. Your readers said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 8:24 am

    Again this? You should be ashamed to use a university blog to spew your anti-Trump propaganda multiple times a week.

    I’m yet to see a post “analysing” crooked Hillary’s speeches.

  4. James said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 8:37 am

    It’s actually an anti-anti-Trump posting.
    Funny how “your readers” don’t manage to read the entry before commenting.

  5. Ellen K. said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 8:45 am

    “Your readers”, you don’t speak for all us readers.

    It’s an interesting post that looks at and analyzes language coverage in the news.

  6. F said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 8:47 am

    James: Why spoil a good rant with facts?

  7. cs said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 8:54 am

    Just to be needlessly picky, it looks like Emily Atkin was the one who misunderstood your Trumpish/Bushish words, and MacIntyre copied without attribution from Atkin. (In fact his article uses the exact wording that Atkin uses.)

  8. bks said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    Billionaire investor and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban isn’t holding back his opinion about his frenemy, Donald Trump.

    “There’s that guy who’ll walk into the bar and say anything to get laid. That’s Donald Trump right now to a T. But it’s all of us who are going to get f—–,” Cuban said during an interview at the SkyBridge Alternatives (SALT) Conference in Las Vegas on Thursday night.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/mark-cuban-trump-is-that-guy-in-the-bar-who-will-say-anything-to-get-laid-2016-5

  9. Michael Rank said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 12:55 pm

    From the reposted Times article, “His favourite word is “I—. That’s unfortunate, can anyone please decipher?

  10. Guy said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    @Michael Rank

    It says “his favorite word is ‘I'”. Apparently you’re having issues with the quotes displaying properly.

  11. D.O. said,

    May 13, 2016 @ 2:16 pm

    Attention: offtop rant.

    Dear Your Readers,

    The problem with your guy is that he is racist, misogynist, and xenophobe. Or at least plays one on TV and is very convincing. He is also bully and liar (technically, bullshitter). Add to that incompetent and fraud. Other than that, he is a beautiful flower, whose speech is “simple and direct”.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    May 14, 2016 @ 5:57 am

    From the article:

    Educated liberals recoil from Trump’s demotic, reductive way of speaking

    I’m sure educated conservatives recoil even more. It sure looks like that: all these desperate attempts to stop Trump, all the #NeverTrump stuff, all these Republican VIPs announcing they won’t support Trump, or they’ll “support” but not “endorse” him, or outright saying they’ll vote for Clinton; Bill Kristol just tweeted yesterday or so that Trump should release his tax returns, pointing out that Clinton has released hers…

    From the reposted Times article, “His favourite word is “I—. That’s unfortunate, can anyone please decipher?

    Change the encoding from “Western” to “Unicode”.

  13. Yandoodan said,

    May 14, 2016 @ 6:41 pm

    There’s one point about Trump’s speech that I have yet to see mentioned (although I admit that I haven’t been paying close attention.) Trump’s rhetoric is basically just normal conversation. Specifically, it’s the way you speak when you are holding forth about your favorite team’s bad draft pick, or what your boss told you at work. It’s the way people talk when they are monologing (a term used in The Incredibles).

    Listen to your crazy Uncle Ralph next time he holds forth on politics. Pay attention to his phrasing, his repetition, his circling back on a topic. Then compare it to Trump. Bet you’ll be amazed at the similarity.

    But, of course Trump uses this as a highly refined rhetoric designed an effective persuasion tool. Uncle Ralph is just nuts.

  14. Belial Issimo said,

    May 16, 2016 @ 4:36 pm

    I have to say, I would pay a lot more attention to Trump’s speeches if he used words like “I†more often.

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