The narrow end of the funnel

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The big political story of the past 24 hours: Stephen K. Bannon, formerly the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News, has taken over as "chief executive" of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

The big linguistic story of the past 24 hours, at least here at Language Log: an exchange between Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum about the rhetorical style of spontaneous speech, as it applies to the linguistic analysis of Donald Trump's rallies.

I want to continue that discussion by breaking down a few of the issues in more detail, focusing particularly on some of the ways that speech differs from writing. As Dwight Bolinger wrote in "Maneuvering for Stress and Intonation", College Composition and Communication 1957:

The first lesson that every apprentice writer must learn is what he can and what he cannot utilize out of the store of spoken devices that he has been accumulating since he learned to talk. Everyone knows that language comes out the narrow end of the funnel when it passes from speech to writing. Something is gained, no doubt, in pictographic tricks and in the precision that is made possible by our freedom to revise what we have said before anyone sets eye or ear upon it. But more is lost. All the expressiveness that we associate with a living speaker is wrung out: gesture, the look on a face, a quality of voice, the warmth of physical presence. […]

The loss affects most of all the writing that we term expository: the essay, the historical account, the scientific treatise, where the personality of the speaker counts for least and the logical message is everything. In drama and novel the reader is challenged to guess at circumstances and emphases; he knows he will have to fill in. Expository writing lulls his wariness; safely ignoring the writer's tone of voice, he feels privileged to ignore the writer's voice altogether. To lead him around the traps he thus lays for himself, the writer must look to those lost grammatical ingredients.

These days, we'd prefer to use "they" rather than "he" to refer to the generic apprentice writer.

And I think that Bolinger underrates "the precision that is made possible by our freedom to revise what we have said before anyone sets eye or ear upon it". The linguistic ingredients lost in writing do include grammatical things, such as the ability to use prosody to delimit phrases, to signal their relationships, and to mark words and phrases as old or new, focus or background. And those lost linguistic ingredients also certainly include cultural and attitudinal herbs and spices.

But a key fact about human speech is how unaware we generally are of its manifold disfluencies: false starts, self-corrections, ums and uhs. As speakers, we learn to recover gracefully from these stumbles, or at least some of us do. And more important, we learn as listeners to somehow distinguish between the aspects of talking that reflect the structure and content of a message, and the aspects that are only symptoms of the variably-difficult process of composition. Indeed, we learn something, or think we do, from what speakers reveal about their compositional difficulties. And sometimes speakers deploy disfluencies with apparent communicative intent.

Linguists and psychologists still have a lot to learn about these too-little-studied aspects of speech communication. But whatever we're doing as listeners to disentangle the threads of spoken discourse, many of those abilities don't survive the transition to text. (Hence the complaints from reporters and transcriptionists about Donald Trump's un-telepromptered speaking style –and the fact that skilled speakers have more to learn about writing than just how to spell words and choose punctuation.)

However, it should be obvious that not all styles of speaking are the same, just as not all styles of writing are the same. And this morning I want to underline one interesting thing about the style of Donald Trump's extemporized rally speeches, namely their almost total lack of filled pauses. I'll make this point by contrasting some remarks — on rather Trumpish topics — by Stephen Bannon, from a panel about The Future of Conservatism held at the National Press Club in Washington DC on 9/24/2013.

The moderator, Nick Sorrentino, asks:

what I want to do is I want to start with you Steve and
if you guys just wanna=
you know we're talking about emerging trends in conservatism= conservatism
um if you could just spend a couple minutes I'd like to go down the= the row here and just
get your thoughts initially

And here's Bannon's response to this first question:

um at= uh at Breitbart uh part of our explosive growth is because we are very focused on a= uh
I don't want to say anti-establishment but we believe that
uh when you talk about brands or you talk about the parties
we don't really
believe there is a
functional conservative party in this country, we certainly don't think the Republican party is that
we uh tend to look at
this imperial city of Washington this boom town
as um they have two
groups or two parties that represent the insiders'
commercial party
and that is a collection of insider deals
insider transactions uh and a= and a budding aristocracy
that has made this the=
the wealthiest
uh
city
in the country
um
and our focus is on crony capitalism
grass roots support
supporting tea party um
uh folks
and I think you've seen this in the current uh
political environment whether it is the
food stamps bill
uh defeat
earlier in the summer
uh Ted Cruz's uh
gallant fight with Mike Lee against ObamaCare
uh the entire uh crony capitalism aspect of the amnesty bill
on and on and on I think these fights
are gonna be the new norm
I mean it's gonna be a= it's really an insurgent
and a pop= center right populist
uh movement that is
uh virulently anti establishment
uh and it's going to continue to hammer
uh the city both the progressive left
and the= uh and the institutional Republican party
uh day in and day out and I think it's galvanizing
uh which is really a majority of the people the working people and middle class in this country
uh to really have a voice and so we see that as a huge trend and I just know from our
exponential growth
um
that it is something that
uh people are thirsting for out there, so it's a= uh we can get into more in the details later but
everything that we see and every trend that we see is= is very strong to a=
really an outsiders'
uh voice and an outsiders' movement to really take their country back

In this passage, Bannon has 25 UHs and 5 UMs in 367 words, so that filled pauses are 100*30/367 = 8.2% of his total word count (including filled pauses and false starts as words). In fact, UH is his commonest wordform:

25 uh
18 and
18 the
11 that
10 is

Now let's compare the transcribed selections of a couple of Donald Trump's speeches previously presented in LLOG posts (from "Trump's rhetorical style", 9/26/2015, and "The em-dash candidate", 8/16/2016).

Those selections have a total of 1604 wordforms. The number of UHs and UMs? Zero.

The top five items in those passages:

77 i
55 's
49 to
40 and
39 a

Bannon's rate of 8.2% filled pauses is on the high side — but Trump's rate in his extemporized rally speeches is extraordinarily low. He does occasionally use filled pauses in his rallies — as I noted in "You know, I mean" (8/14/2016),

… in my transcript of his 12/21/215 Grand Rapids rally he used "uh" just 5 times in 11023 words, for a rate of 0.5 per thousand words. [0.05%]

And I also observed that things seem to be a bit different in his interviews, where he may be putting a bit more thought into his choice of words:

In contrast, in the CNBC interview, he used "uh" 74 times in 5329 words, for a rate of 14 per thousand words. [1.4%]

Trump's CNBC filled-pause rate is still relatively low — compare Hillary Clinton's Vox interview, where she used "uh" 210 times and "um" 28 times in 5985 words, for a total filled-pause rate of

1000*238/5985 or about 40 per thousand words. [4.0%]

So by one measure, namely frequency of filled pauses, Donald Trump is extraordinarily fluent.

I've speculated that he may have trained himself — or been trained — at some point in his life to avoid using um and uh. But it's also possible that these filled-pauses statistics are the consequence of a relatively unfiltered connection between his thoughts and his words.


Still to come: How to analyze the structure of spontaneous speech? For a small taste, consider this passage from Bannon:

I mean it's gonna be a= it's really an insurgent
and a pop= center right populist
uh movement that is
uh virulently anti establishment
uh and it's going to continue to hammer
uh the city both the progressive left
and the= uh and the institutional Republican party
uh day in and day out and I think it's galvanizing
uh which is really a majority of the people the working people and middle class in this country
uh to really have a voice

It's clear enough in spoken form. If we run together a literal transcription of the word sequence without punctuation, we get something that's not easy to read:

I mean it's gonna be a it's really an insurgent and a pop- center right populist uh movement that is uh virulently anti establishment uh and it's going to continue to hammer uh the city both the progressive left and the uh and the institutional Republican party uh day in and day out and I think it's galvanizing uh which is really a majority of the people the working people and middle class in this country uh to really have a voice

If we remove the filled pauses and the false starts, it gets better:

I mean it's really an insurgent and a center right populist movement that is virulently anti establishment and it's going to continue to hammer the city both the progressive left and the institutional Republican party day in and day out and I think it's galvanizing which is really a majority of the people the working people and middle class in this country to really have a voice

Add a bit of punctuation and it's almost — but not quite — writerly:

I mean it's really an insurgent and a center right populist movement that is virulently anti establishment, and it's going to continue to hammer the city both the progressive left and the institutional Republican party, day in and day out, and I think it's galvanizing which is really a majority of the people, the working people and middle class in this country, to really have a voice.

There are a few problems left. In particular there's the headless (or 'fused') relative clause "which is really a majority of the people", here used as the object of "galvanizing". I believe that such clauses are used more frequently in speech than in writing, especially in constructions like this one, because in speech the otherwise-ambiguous boundaries and function of the clause can be sketched prosodically.



12 Comments

  1. Charles Antaki said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 7:57 am

    Everyone knows that language comes out the narrow end of the funnel when it passes from speech to writing.

    Indeed. But to imply that the speech that goes into the funnel is monologue is already something of a pre-funnel funnelling. If there's merit in the claim that it's (free-for-all) conversation that is the real raw material, then what comes out in writing is in contrast narrower still. Not only does it not log the uhs and ums, but loses quite what such things do in the environment of the previous speaker's turn-at-talk.

    I know that if we're thinking about language in politics we're drawn almost inevitably to speeches, or fairly formalised settings which afford monologue-type long turns. Neverthess a still more telling analysis would be of Bannon (or Trump) in text v. monologue v. cut-and-thrust interchange. The last of these would have the extra oomph of showing him not only promoting some pre-fixed position but handling the implications of what the previous speaker had just said – and ums and ahs sometimes do that too.

    [(myl) Yes, it's certainly a critical and interesting part of spoken language that it's used skillfully in dialogue and in multi-party conversation, not only in back-and-forth but in overlaps of several different kinds. Even skillful monologues (in writing as well as in speech) are implicit dialogues, in that the presentation needs to take account of the listeners' changing state of knowledge and belief. And all the different levels and types of linguistic and para-linguistic expression have aspects that must be understood in terms of the relations of the speaker and the message to the other parties in the conversation.]

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 8:39 am

    If you were to count Trump's contentless rhetorical ticks — the repetition of short phrases, "believe me", "I mean" — as filled pauses would the ratio be more normal?

    [(myl) I've speculated that his frequent phrasal repetitions might be a way of avoiding filled pauses and dead air (e.g. "Donald Trump's repetitive rhetoric", 12/5/2015; "You know, I mean", 8/14/2016). His rate of using filler phrases like "believe me", "you know" and "I mean" is similar to what we see from other speakers, and not nearly high enough to make up for the apparently-missing ums and uhs.]

  3. Bill Benzon said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    MYL: "Even skillful monologues (in writing as well as in speech) are implicit dialogues, in that the presentation needs to take account of the listeners' changing state of knowledge and belief. "

    Yes. And comedians, among others, are acutely aware of the importance of timing. Seinfeld has talked about how he'd work to shave or add a syllable or three to a bit. He talks of bits as precisely adjusted machines. If the punch line doesn't arrive at just the right time, it won't work.

    Now, take something like Obama's eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney. It was scripted ahead of time. Obama's head speech writer produced a draft and then Obama revised it considerably. He had a written text with him on the podium and, presumably, he spoke from it (you could see him glance at it). But there are significant pauses in his deliver that do not appear anywhere in the transcript available online (I do not know how closely that transcript tracks the written draft).

    Obama was, in that speech, actually working in a highly developed tradition of interactive oratory, black vernacular preaching. And his audience certainly interacted with him. The band too.

  4. Faith Jones said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 9:39 am

    This whole thing is a re-run of the Bushisms war of long ago, in which Pullum maintained W's idiocy was reflected in his speaking style while Liberman countered that his disfluencies were average and could not be used to posit sub-normal intelligence.
    There remain two questions, neither exactly linguistic:
    1. If someone is not necessarily an idiot despite sounding like one, how are we to tell?
    2. Assuming they are not an idiot even if they sound like one, is being more articulate than average a reasonable thing to demand of someone seeking the most powerful political job on the planet?

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 11:42 am

    I think there are numerous reasons (indeed an embarrassment of riches) other than extemporaneous speaking style to think that Mr. Trump would be a suboptimal president, but I am fascinated by what sort of inferences people draw from the fact that he either can't or won't speak the way a conventional American political candidate is conventionally expected to. It rather seems like being shocked and appalled that someone wants to govern China but can't be bothered to learn how to produce a proper https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight-legged_essay.

  6. Flex said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 11:54 am

    Maybe a review of Trump's television shows/appearances over the years would show a change in how he uses filled-pauses.

    It wouldn't surprise me if he didn't get any training, but did get comments from hosts, producers, editors, and other people involved in television production which changed his speech patterns to be more in line with the spoken word as used by television performers rather than the man on the street.

  7. Chris C. said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

    "I've speculated that his frequent phrasal repetitions might be a way of avoiding filled pauses and dead air"

    Which actually puts him in good company with the extemporaneous oral epic poets like Homer, no? They had their repertoire of stock lines and phrases they could roll out while they mentally composed the next few lines of actual story. Trump's repetitions and stock phrases are shorter, but then, he's composing blank verse and need not worry so much about scansion.

  8. Richard said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    Perhaps this is a case of pre-funnel lobotomy.

  9. Ray said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer: "I am fascinated by what sort of inferences people draw from the fact that he either can't or won't speak the way a conventional American political candidate is conventionally expected to."

    me too. the way trump speaks obviously resonates (organically, spontaneously unscripted) with masses of supporters, and it obviously confounds (prescripted, conventionally correct) establishment media pundits. could this be a signal that the establishment in general is out of touch with people on the ground? or, more to the point, willfully out of touch? to the extent that instead of hearing and absorbing the phenom, they choose to argue against, discredit, and actively vilify what they observe to be happening, in all its raw realism? is all their virtue-signalled, pearl-clutching reaction itself a coordinated scripted act or what?

    it's fascinating to watch how realities collide, especially in our mediated worlds of reality.

  10. D.O. said,

    August 18, 2016 @ 10:36 pm

    Maybe Mr. Trump is our first big stage political speaker of the TV age. Why, after all, politicians feel compelled to speak as if they are reading a written text? The usual excuse, that otherwise they words will be misconstrued and used against them by political opponents, is lacking, because political opponents will misconstrue anything any politician says. If a politician says that she loves babies, next morning's newspaper will report that she hates toddlers. By now, it is probably just a tradition. But probably a tradition stemming from the fact that most people were engaged with a politician's words through newspapers. And they didn't want newspapers to have a "Trump problem" of transcribing. But if your main means of communication is never going to be read, why bother?

  11. James Wimberley said,

    August 19, 2016 @ 3:58 am

    Nineteenth-century public figures wrote letters: often dozens a day. The youth of today also write constantly to each other on social media. There is a generation or two in between that lost the habit of frequent writing, the TV people. Trump is an archetypal TV person.

    Aside: has anybody looked at the degree of formality in the golden age of radio? The BBC announcers in formal dress may gave been extreme, but Churchill's radio addresses – he was more effective there than in the duels of the House if Commons – were as formal and stylised as rhetoric comes.

  12. Bill Benzon said,

    August 19, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

    Slavoj Zizek extemporizes on Trump.

    https://youtu.be/PTUvB1ygPbw

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