The rhetorical style of spontaneous speech

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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.

sit down we're just starting
I- there's no opening act fuck it just let's start
let's just start
get in your seats
get your beers every- go ahead
sit down
kill the house lights let's just start
let's just start a show
there's no point in uh
screwing around
I'll do all the announcements that you would of heard uh please turn off your cell phones
uh don't uh I- I mean you can take pictures but
turn off the flash that's stupid because it's not
you know like when you're watching the world series and there's all- like it's that- like your flash is lighting Yankee Stadium
just
leave your flash off, if you have- don't yell out during the show, if you have something you want to say to me
totally this is what we do, we write it down
and then you go outside in the lobby
and then you go home and you kill yourself
because
that's selfish this is a rhetorical
performance, it's got nothing to do with you
don't text or twitter during the show just live your life don't
keep telling people what you're doing
just-
cause also
also
it lights up your big dumb face
it lights it up I see this beautiful sea of darkness and and then just one guy
so don't do that
uh what else no jews I think they said that earlier but I just- they told me I have to say it
jews aren't allowed
if you're jewish this is a good time to g- uh to go if you're-
if you see somebody kind of jewy looking then please tell an usher
and they will uh
"sir come on"
"let's go come on let's go"
but uh I'm really glad you're here this is a-
a- a sizable uh crowd this is a big place is about twenty five hundred people here
and uh that's uh
that's a lot of people that's enough people to be like a sample of the population
twenty five hundred people that you're all going to experience a lot-
there's enough people here to say that within two months at least one of you will die
right? I'm just saying
I- I think it's probably accurate
to say
that out of any random group of twenty five hundred people
not all of ya are gonna make it to Christmas unfortunately there's gonna be
at least
one of you here tonight
is going to ruin your family's Christmas
by dying a shitty death
and I don't know who it is I'm sorry
I don't know your death is whatev- some people uh they- they want you to do things when they die with their-
like "I want you to take my ashes
and sprinkle"
fuck you I'm not doing none of that shit
you're dead I'm not going to run errands for you after you're dead
you don't matter any more
some people try to do something uh
you know noble with their bodies they try to have their bodies have some use after they're dead which I think is
a good thought
you're only borrowing your body
you're only borrowing everything, if your body's worth anything when you're done with it
you should pass it on, that's something I really believe
I mean I'm not gonna do it
because
I don't want- eww it's mine I don't want- I don't-
I have a lot of beliefs
and I live by none of em
that's just the way I am
they're just my beliefs I just like believing them I like that part
they're my little believies they make me feel good about how I am
but if they get in the way of a thing I want or I want to jack off or someth- I fuckin do that
well
but some people take their b- my grandma
uh grand mother
she just- for the- for the laymen
my grandmother um
she gave her body to a medical school
uh
so it- for it to just be examined and- and dissected
which is a good thought for that but you know there're her survivors are- her family
that was a person
that was my grandmother, she used to wear glasses and say things
and now she's just shaved head on a metal table
with a
hung-over medical student trying to dig out her pancreas
and he gets an F
imagine being the body
where the kid got an F on you

Run it all together and you get an unreadable mess:

sit down we're just starting, I- there's no opening act fuck it just let's start, let's just start, get in your seats, get your beers every- go ahead, sit down, kill the house lights let's just start, let's just start a show, there's no point in uh, screwing around, I'll do all the announcements that you would of heard uh please turn off your cell phones, uh don't uh I- I mean you can take pictures but, turn off the flash that's stupid because it's not, you know like when you're watching the world series and there's all- like it's that- like your flash is lighting Yankee Stadium, just, leave your flash off, if you have- don't yell out during the show, if you have something you want to say to me, totally this is what we do, we write it down, and then you go outside in the lobby, and then you go home and you kill yourself, because, that's selfish this is a rhetorical, performance, it's got nothing to do with you, don't text or twitter during the show just live your life don't, keep telling people what you're doing, just-, cause also, also, it lights up your big dumb face, it lights it up I see this beautiful sea of darkness and and then just one guy, so don't do that, uh what else no jews I think they said that earlier but I just- they told me I have to say it, jews aren't allowed, if you're jewish this is a good time to g- uh to go if you're-, if you see somebody kind of jewy looking then please tell an usher, and they will uh, "sir come on", "let's go come on let's go", but uh I'm really glad you're here this is a-, a- a sizeable uh crowd this is a big place is about twenty five hundred people here, and uh that, that's a lot of people that's enough people to be like a sample of the population, twenty five hundred people that you're all going to experience a lot-, there's enough people here to say that within two months at least one of you will die, right? I'm just saying, I- I think it's probably accurate, to say, that out of any random group of twenty five hundred people, not all of ya are gonna make it to Christmas unfortunately there's gonna be, at least, one of you here tonight, is going to ruin your family's Christmas, by dying a shitty death, and I don't know who it is I'm sorry, I don't know your death is whatev- some people uh they- they want you to do things when they die with their-, like "I want you to take my ashes, and sprinkle", fuck you I'm not doing none of that shit, you're dead I'm not going to run errands for you after you're dead, you don't matter any more, some people try to do something uh, you know noble with their bodies they try to have their bodies have some use after they're dead which I think is, a good thought, you're only borrowing your body, you're only borrowing everything, if your body's worth anything when you're done with it, you should pass it on, that's something I really believe, I mean I'm not gonna do it, because, I don't want- eww it's mine I don't want- I don't-, I have a lot of beliefs, and I live by none of em, that's just the way I am, they're just my beliefs I just like believing them I lik that part, they're my little believies they make me feel good about how I am, but if they get in the way of a thing I want or I want to jack off or someth- I fuckin do that, well, but some people take their b- my grandma, uh grand mother, she just- for the- for the laymen, my grandmother um, she gave her body to a medical school, uh, so it- for it to just be examined and- and dissected, which is a good thought for that but you know there're her survivors are- her family, that was a person, that was my grandmother, she used to wear glasses and say things, and now she's just shaved head on a metal table, with a, hung-over medical student trying to dig out her pancreas, and he gets an F, imagine being the body, where the kid got an F on you, 

You could make it easier to assimilate by deploying some capital letters and some different punctuation and some paragraph-breaks. But the point is, this was never meant to be written down. It's not a spoken form of written text, it's a "rhetorical performance" that uses the resources of all levels of language to engage, entertain and inform the audience.

I guess it's fair for reporters to complain that Donald Trump uses the style of a stand-up comic rather than the style of schoolteacher. But let's not pretend that the result is incoherent or unintelligible — it's just a skillful instance of human speech communication in its natural state.



19 Comments

  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

    Interesting that you went with a stand-up comedian for the comparison. Michael Silverstein recently told Mashable, "Mr. Trump's style of delivery has long been a cross between stand-up comedy and the kind of thing one hears in neighborhood bars: no full sentences with clear assertions, but only a stream of phrases that point to particular things and circumstances, letting those who hear them understand what they mean."

    [(myl) I think that Michael also gets this somewhat wrong — Louis CK has plenty of "full sentences with clear assertions", and for that matter so do the orators in the neighborhood bars I've spent time in.]

  2. Vance Maverick said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    Reading this (which is funnier than Trump but indeed not much tighter) made me think of David Antin's "talk poems". Here's an example from his book Tuning: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/tuning.html. Antin is quite clear in those books that the written version is cleaned up — but this makes me realize that it's cleaned up very nearly to prose standard, with only a few disfluencies, digressions and unfinished gestures to retain a flavor of speech.

  3. Matt McGarrity said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    My experience has been that many political speech writers either come directly from journalism or have a journalism background. So, you'll hear "polished" political speech that lends itself to transcription because it was penned by a journalist. Trump certainly doesn't sound like this, because, as you point out, he lives almost entirely in the oral realm. The speeches written for him struggle to find his rhythm and phrasing.

  4. Belial Issimo said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 1:08 pm

    May 31, apparently, is National Speak in Complete Sentences Day. http://www.nationaldaycalendar.com/national-speak-in-complete-sentences-day-may-31/ The other 364 days, you too can be a standup comedian, or a Presidential candidate.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 2:11 pm

    Aside from the fact brought up by Matt McGarrity that "many political speech writers either come directly from journalism or have a journalism background," there is also the one that many if not most politicians are lawyers, who are also trained to speak in seemingly coherent paragraphs.

  6. Bill Benzon said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 2:24 pm

    Not so long ago I got interested in Jerry Seinfeld. He's known to craft his bits by writing them out longhand on yellow pads. And he'll work on it time and again until he gets in right, in some cases this may go on for months or more. Still….

    Here's a post where I analyze one of his bits, about donut holes. I've put my transcription below. I've cleaned it up just a bit, and, of course, divided it into paragraphs. Still, there are some disfluencies.

    I heard backstage, that one of the changes made to the theater, bigger seats – Why? A lot of people think we have a weight problem in this country. I don't agree with that. I don't believe we have a weight problem until we're all physically touching each other, all the time. When it is solid human flesh. From coast to coast. A jar of olives just … [squeezes his head between his hands] … Someone's gotta' lose some weight; I can't move.

    A lot of reports, investigative reports on TV, weight problem in America. Always start the same: sidewalk shot, regular people, right? Carefully angled, cutting them off at the head; we don't want to see who it is. Aren't some of those people at home later go, "Hey, that's my ass on CCN! That's not fair. Just got up to get some donut holes."

    The donut hole. The donut hole. Let's stop right there. What a horrible little snack. If you want a donut, have a donut. Why are you eating the hole?

    It's such a freaky metaphysical concept to begin with. You can't sell people holes. They… A hole, a hole does not exist. Words have meaning.

    [Applause]

    A hole is the absence of whatever is surrounding it. OK? If they were really donut holes, the bag would be empty. OK? And the donuts that you got the holes from wouldn't have holes, because you took 'em. Now if you want, you could take what they're calling donut holes, but they are not. They are donut plugs.

    You could take the plug, and shove it in the hole which, I don't even feel comfortable saying, for some reason. But that would eliminate the donut, the hole, and the plug, but, you still have a fat ass and people shoot'n you with a camera as you're walking down the street. So it doesn't work.

    Here's a post at 3 Quarks Daily where I've transcribed part of a conversation between Seinfeld and Obama. That's from his web-show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which is generally pretty good. FWIW here's his show with Louis C.K.

    For those who don't know the show, which is generally excellent, the premise is simple. Jerry finds a car appropriate to his guest (he's a car freak, some of the cars are from his collection), he picks them up, they talk, they get coffee. He says each episode involves 3 to 4 hours of filming. Then he and his crew edit the raw footage down to 15 minuites, plus or minus. So the conversation is all spontaneous, but edited.

  7. Bloix said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

    Louis C.K. doesn't want you to know what he believes. That is the point. Does he REALLY want the Jews to leave? Of course not. Well, of course not? Maybe he's an anti-Semite and he's enjoying himself by insulting the Jews in the audience. Who knows? Does he REALLY want you to kill yourself? Well, maybe he doesn't much care if you do. Like he says, he doesn't follow what he believes. So. You. Can't. Tell. That's the whole point of the humor – the guy pretends to be a selfish asshole but hey, maybe he's not pretending. There's no logic, argument, or reasoning. It's just winking douchebaggery, ranting and free-associating on and on and on. He's EXACTLY like Trump.

    Seinfeld is completely different. In the donut thing, the humor is that it's entirely reasoned, logical, sensible. It's just dim. And a bit offensive but not intentionally so – the Jerry character never tries to give offense, but he's dense.

  8. Bill Benzon said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 5:42 pm

    FWIW, I don't know how much experience Trump has w/ public speaking. It's not as central to the businessman's job as it is to a politician's, or a preacher's. You have to work at it if you want to speak in reasonably grammatical 'sentences' and coherent 'paragraphs.' I'd guess that Trump hasn't worked at it.

    And, while Louis C.K. has a couple of decades of speaking in front of an audience apparently he's not interested in a certain kind of fluency and continuity.

  9. Sam Buggeln said,

    August 16, 2016 @ 7:11 pm

    Well, two things– first, in my estimation CK is deploying a quite expert strategy of linguistically disorienting and misdirecting the audience to get laughs.

    But more importantly, after listening to the recording I feel like the one-paragraph rendering is quite misleading as to the way CK says what he does. If I were a playwright who wanted to get an actor to speak those lines the way CK does, I would write something like, "Sit down. We're just starting, I- There's no opening act. Fuck it, just let's start. Let's just start. Get in your seats. Get your beers every- go ahead, sit down." etc. When you write, "You could make it easier to assimilate by deploying some capital letters and some different punctuation and some paragraph-breaks," it's like, yes, you could deploy the appropriate tools of the English language rather than misleading ones…

  10. JPL said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 1:58 am

    Trump and Louis CK are "working the room". Seinfeld, in addition to that, is trying to get something right about his understanding of the world and allow the audience to share in his discoveries, which is more like normal language use, in like a classroom context, like a teacher. Trump and CK are interested mainly in eliciting reactions from an audience (blood-curdling howls of rage, laughs) that they are knowingly manipulating, utilizing knowledge of their conventional sensibilities.

  11. Bill Benzon said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 4:39 am

    Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais and, Louis CK talking about their craft.

  12. What I’m reading 28 Jul 2016 through 17 Aug 2016 | Morgan's Log said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

    […] The rhetorical style of spontaneous speech – – (linguistics orality erhetoric ) […]

  13. Not a Supporter said,

    August 17, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

    Some people are getting a little defensive about a nice liberal comedian not talking in complete sentences. Are you folks actually linguists? Because I thought we had all been disabused of the fallacy that what we consider felicitous language had much at all to do with rules of orthography. People do not speak in complete sentences all the time, and mostly we do not care or judge their intelligence as a result. Unless we already despise them and want to build a case for why we feel that way. Building that kind of tendentious case is not the proper business of linguistics. You can't judge a person's intelligence by hearing them talk. Fact.

  14. Rodger C said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 6:43 am

    What's orthography got to do with it?

  15. Ray said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 7:42 am

    this all reminds me of watching a late night talk show host reading in a deadpan voice the actual lyrics of a pop song. it's funny, because we all love the well known sing-along pop song, but cringe at how nonsensical its words are. (and though we realize this must make us look mighty stupid, we also know that "those other folks" just don't get it.)

  16. Thomas Rees said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 7:42 am

    Didn't Louis Székely grow up in CDMX?

  17. Jim McCusker said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 7:42 am

    A CT public radio personality and colunist Colin McEnroe proposed that Trump's rhetorical style is based on Don Rickles, who he almost certainly listened to as a kid. This seems to bear out that hypothesis.

  18. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 10:12 am

    @Ray: Steve Allen pioneered that condescending "dramatic reading of pop lyrics" bit.

  19. Ray said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 8:44 pm

    @Ben: omg. so now the question is: who is laughing along and who is clutching their pearls? (ie, who has the last laugh, who wins?)

    it might be a coin toss. here we go:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNPp74zh8lM

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRKZh-2j4PY

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJ-KxVjDGGc

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zY_74FiwdbU

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQHf2GSsjq0

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