Internecine strife at Language Log?

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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?

Naaah. I don't disagree with any of what Mark has said about the untidiness of actual on-the-hoof spontaneous speech. He's also right about the usefulness of transcribing it with line separations rather like blank verse. And about reporters' carelessness in representing their inaccurate paraphrasings of utterances as direct quotation. And he's right that it's unjust for reporters who have such poor transcription skills to grumble about transcription of a candidate whose spontaneous productions have the same sort of disfluencies, missteps, repetitions, and elisions as anybody else's unplanned speech.

But back in August 2015, when I wrote "Trump's aphasia" (and I confess to the overstatement implied in the title), Slate was directly asking whether anyone with a serious grounding in grammatical analysis could offer a syntactic structure for a specific passage in a speech that might or might not have been dealing with the crucially important topic of the deal with Iran on nuclear technology.

Lucy Ferriss actually spent an hour at the drafting table using her crayons to rough out a Reed–Kellogg diagram of the structure of his entire pseudoparagraph, and found some sort of coherence in it.

Structure in the sort of rambling monologue involved is partly in the eye of the beholder, of course, and I had a jaundiced eye, for I was not in a charitable mood. I noted that Trump was flailing around among topics like nuclear engineering, his uncle, the Wharton School of Business, his own intelligence, American politics, prisoners, women's intelligence, Islamist sexism, and Iranian negotiation skills, and I said it was "hard to be sure" what he was actually claiming. It might have been that the terms of the deal President Obama signed with Iran were inappropriately lenient, but he never exactly said that in the passage quoted.

None of this is in direct conflict with Mark's empirical points about the nature of ordinary spontaneous speech and the linguistic blindness of many reporters.

Mark notes perceptively that you can compare Trump's remarks with a casually improvised opening of a standup comedy act by Louis CK, and they fit right in. On the other hand, compare Trumpian rhetoric with Barack Obama's carefully phrased and highly cerebral speeches and Trump looks shockingly incompetent. And it is, after all, Obama's present job that Trump is bidding for, not Louis CK's.

I referred to Trump as a "nasty, racist, golden-quiffed, self-publicizing nutcase" with "barely a coherent thought in his head." I don't retract that. I have followed closely the often contradictory things Trump has said over the past twelve months, and I find that from the content of his public utterances we cannot learn whether he was in favor of the invasion of Iraq or not; whether he wants women punished for having abortions or not; whether he would completely bar Muslims from entering the USA or not; whether he thinks black lives matter or not; whether he intended to recommend shooting Hillary Clinton or was just joking; whether he seriously claims Obama founded Daesh or was just being "sarcastic"…

Mark's comparison of Trump with Louis CK is apposite, but that cuts both ways: Trying to decide whether to vote for Trump on the basis of transcriptions of his public performances would be exactly like trying to decide what sort of president Louis CK would make on the basis of transcriptions of his public performances. Not a good idea.

The reason I'm not appalled at the lack of intellectual discipline in Louis CK's performance is that he's a standup comic. His style fits his profession. I remain appalled at the lack of intellectual discipline in Trump's performances because he aims to be selected for the most demanding and sensitive executive job on this planet. One ill-chosen phrase or unwisely harsh word from the president of the United States can cause really serious geopolitical trouble. The job calls for caution, discipline, and clarity of thought. A president must hear and analyse a wide range of expert advice, and act judiciously after understanding and absorbing it.

You may disagree with me: you may see some thread of sensible presidential policy presentation in Trump's speeches. I'll leave that up to you in the privacy of the voting booth (this is Language Log, not Presidential Election Voting Advice Log). But don't imagine that my horror at the incoherent political ranting of this coarse, repellent, insulting, xenophobic, muskrat-coiffed, narcissistic property developer has to entail disagreement with my friend Mark Liberman about the characteristic features of spontaneous, unplanned monologue, because it doesn't.

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