The battle of the airports

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Donald Trump's July 4 speech included this puzzling passage:

In June of seventeen seventy five
the Continental Congress created a unified army
out of the revolutionary forces encamped around Boston and New York
and named after the great
George Washington commander in chief
The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter
of Valley Forge
found glory across the waters of the Delaware
and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown.
Our army manned the air((ports))
it ranned [sic]
the ramparts
it took over the airports it did everything it had to do
and at Fort
McHendry [sic]
under the rockets' red glare
it had nothing
but victory.
and when dawn came
their star spangled banner
waved defiant

What got the biggest reaction was the idea of the continental army under George Washington taking over airports, along with the unexpected shift to the War of 1812. But there are several other puzzling things in this passage.

The first puzzle is the assertion that in 1775 the newly-formed Continental Army was named after George Washington, rather than simply commanded by him.

The second puzzle is the apparent substitution of "of" for "at" in two phrases:

The continental army suffered a bitter winter of Valley Forge
found glory across the waters of the Delaware
and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown.

A third puzzle is the sudden drop-off of volume in the second syllable of this phrase:

Our army manned the air((ports))

Here's the final syllable amplified:

At first I thought the president might have turned his head away from the microphone, but the video shows nothing like that:

Neither does it seem to support the idea that the sound system might have cut out briefly, though this is less clear. My hypothesis would be that in the course of reading the phrase "manned the airports", Mr. Trump realized that this was an odd thing to attribute to the Continental army under George Washington.

A fourth puzzle is what he said the army did to the ramparts:

Some people transcribed the phrase as "it rammed the ramparts", while others transcribed it as "it ran the ramparts". I'm pretty sure that the president said "it ranned the ramparts", even though "ranned" isn't a word. I'll spare you the argument based on formant transitions and burst spectrum, and just let you listen and judge for yourself.

And a fifth puzzle is the intrusive [d] in "Fort McHenry":

Putting it all together, I'm inclined to agree with Philip Bump ("The problem with Trump's Revolutionary War airports isn't the airports", Washington Post 7/5/2019) that this cascade of errors may have resulted from attempts to push past an initial misreading without acknowledging error.

The president blamed  the rain and teleprompter troubles.



35 Comments

  1. Dick Margulis said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 6:49 pm

    Chris Hayes, on MSNBC has collected numerous examples of this particular strategy of Trump's. His misreads something, and then he vamps on the misreading until he gets back to what the text actually says. He has apparently trained himself to avoid um and uh as fillers. But if he misreads someone's first name (as he did in a state of the union speech) or if he is aiming for manned the ramparts and ends up with rammed the ramparts and manned the airports or whatever, he just keeps filling. It makes for some amusing moments, to be sure. But there's no indication he believes there were airports in 1775. Conflating the Revolution and the War of 1812 I ascribe to ignorance on both Trump's part and that of his speech toadies.

  2. Bloix said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 7:44 pm

    Note that what threw him off was "ramparts." Trump has a fifth-grade vocabulary. He didn't know the word. You'd think a US president would know the Star Spangled Banner but in this case I doubt it.

  3. Annie Gottlieb said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 9:29 pm

    Seems to me a straightforward case of misreading from a teleprompter (for a moment he thought "ramparts" was "airports"), stumbling to the correct reading, and then having the misreading persevere (thus repeating "airports"). The rest is simply attributable to unfamiliarity with the text (he didn't seem to have rehearsed at least this part of it, or even ever seen it before) and ignorance of and indifference to the facts of American history.

  4. Wally said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 10:03 pm

    This analysis from Reddit seems accurate. Btw I think the poster is a woman. One word convinced me. Does anyone agree:

    So I'm pretty sure I know exactly what happened here. I haven't seen anyone else post about this, but as a teacher who works with struggling readers, I know that highly literate people (including most general-level teachers) have a hard time understanding how someone like this approaches written text, since for many of us reading comes so naturally. From my perspective it's pretty easy to see why Trump said this weird thing, given what we know about him. We know:
    Donald Trump does not read well. Like most of the students I work with, he avoids reading both because he wants to avoid being embarrassed, and because reading costs him a lot more mental energy than for proficient readers. We know from lots of different reports that his staff does not give him anything long or complex to read, because of this avoidance.
    For this reason, when Trump does have to read something out loud, it is clear that he is not processing the meaning of what he is saying. For a struggling reader, all their concentration goes into pronouncing the words out loud, and simultaneously processing the meaning is very difficult. We see this when is giving a prepared speech and mispronounces a word in a way that makes no sense. A proficient reader would immediately stop and self-correct. Trump often doesn't, because he is not processing what he is saying. Other times I know I've heard him notice his mistake, but instead of correcting it, he covers it up with a bit of lame word-play, pretending that the mistake was intentional. I can't think of any specific examples of this, but I know I've heard him do it.
    There are other times when he reacts to a line in his speech like he hasn't heard it before. He noticeably stops and inserts a comment of his own before going back to the reading. He does not know how to gracefully glide between reading and impromptu speaking, since reading is so unnatural for him.
    Trump also has a relatively small vocabulary. Remember his remarks about "the oranges of the Mueller report." He was parroting something that he had heard before, but not having a firm grasp of the word "origins," he used a more familiar word instead, because that was how his mind remembered the word.
    The speech he was giving made heavy use of language from "The Star Spangled Banner." For many struggling readers, this would be helpful, since it would rely on familiar chunks of language that would reduce the mental load of reading it. However, we've seen that Trump does not know the words to the anthem. He has tried and failed to sing along with it but couldn't fake it very well.
    Keeping all that in mind, let's look at what he said:
    Our army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do, and at Fort McHenry, under the rockets' red glare, it had nothing but victory.
    Based on my experience, here's what I think happened, step by step.
    Our army manned the air
    Here I think it's likely that Trump skipped a line on his teleprompter. The line was probably "manned the ramparts," and later on I'm guessing there was a reference to "bombs bursting in air." We all do this sometimes, but struggling readers do it a whole lot more. And furthermore, when a proficient reader makes this mistake they can quickly self-correct, but someone like Trump, who is not totally processing the meaning of what he is reading, can get totally derailed when they do this.
    it rammed the ramparts
    Trump seems to have noticed that "manned the air" was a mistake, and he went back to do the line over. But he got "manned" and "ramparts" mixed up, so it came out as "rammed." But he's immediately fallen into another pit: the word "ramparts." He doesn't know what it means. It's a very uncommon word that most Americans only know from this line in "The Star Spangled Banner." Trump, however, doesn't even know that, since he has never learned the words to the song. So I think that at this point, already a little flustered from covering up his last mistake, he thinks he has mis-read another word. "Ramparts?" I must have misread something, he thinks to himself.
    it took over the airports
    This is a repair strategy that Trump has used in the past. Mess up a word? Pretend it was the first in a sequence of rhyming or similar words and carry on from there. What's a word he knows that sounds like ramparts? Airports. And "air" was already on his mind from just before, when he accidentally read "manned the air." So they manned the ramparts, they took over the airports. He's hoping that nobody will notice. It's worked before.
    it did everything it had to do
    This sounds like an impromptu comment that he inserted into the written text. It uses the simple and non-specific language that he is known for in his impromptu speeches. The comment bought him a second where he could find his place after getting completely lost before.
    and at Fort McHenry, under the rockets' red glare, it had nothing but victory.
    And now he's found his place again. He's back to the written speech that uses lines from "The Star Spangled Banner." He might not even realize how ridiculous his last few sentences have sounded, since again, he's not really able to process the meaning of what he is saying.
    My kiddos who are in this situation have a hard time. I and their other teachers have to work really hard to help them learn strategies to overcome these difficulties with the way they process written text. It requires just as much hard work on the kids' part. I strongly suspect that Donald Trump never went through this process and remains in a not fully literate state. Usually we're afraid that someone who graduates with this level of reading ability will have very limited career prospects in the future.

  5. LAURA MORLAND said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 10:40 pm

    Very instructive analysis from Reddit! (Is it established that Trump has a LD?)

    @Wally, is the "gender-reveal" word "flustered"?

  6. Andrew Usher said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 11:03 pm

    The word he was thinking of could only have been 'kiddos'. I wouldn't even need that as a sufficiently long unconstrained piece of writing nearly always reveals gender; anyway, I don't think it was really necessary or appropriate for him to copy a post of such length here, especially since he doesn't know how to mark it as a quote!

    The speechwriter was at fault here for introducing the confusing references to 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and the war of 1812, if indeed those really were in the text. And I suppose he wouldn't think of pausing after his mistake, although then you'd think he'd try to keep following the teleprompter instead of repeating 'ramparts' and 'airports'; not his finest moment, either. If he really didn't recognise the word 'ramparts', he's hardly alone – many Americans wouldn't, outside of the song.

    Finally the so-called intrusive /d/ in 'Fort McHenry' is not really a speech error; it's just a phenomenon that some people do. That's why we have Thomson and Thompson, etc. I admit /nr/ is one of the less common clusters to hear it in, though.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  7. eub said,

    July 7, 2019 @ 11:46 pm

    At first sight of his speech I thought I had actually learned a me fact about language — that "ramparts" are etymologically wala of rammed earth. Alas, they are not.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 12:12 am

    The Scottish surname that's Mac Eanruig in Gaelic more typically gets Englished as Henderson rather than McHenry (or McHendry), but hey, there's that intrusive /d/ again in Henderson (and related surnames like Hendry/Hendrie/etc.). Note also that the Dutch cognate of the given name that usually comes out Henry in English and Heinrich in German is Hendrik.

  9. J. Goard said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 12:13 am

    I mean, in Bayesian terms, there's such a high prior for someone in this subfield of education being female that I wonder how much the word in question would be able to update my prediction further. Working primarily as a special ed / speech therapy substitute whenever I spend time in the U.S., I've never once worked with another man.

    I also guessed that the word is "kiddos" — but that strikes me as part of special ed sociolect, not nearly as characteristic of female teachers more broadly.

  10. John Swindle said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 2:46 am

    The Reddit post may have been removed. The unknown contributor's analysis was very helpful. Trump's comments were absurd on the face of them, but they make sense in the context she or he provided.

    Donald Trump made a holiday speech about America without wandering off onto how great he is and how despicable his political enemies are. He'd been challenged about whether he could do so. He pulled it off. Doing so required self-control and sticking to the script no matter what. Sticking to the script is hard when you have limited literacy, you don't know what you're talking about, it's raining, and the teleprompter is hard to see. We should give him a little bit of credit. Not too much.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 3:12 am

    There's a striking similarity between this thread and previous Language Log discussions of Xi Jinping's difficulties with reading in public speaking (e.g. https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=41287 or https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=42649).

  12. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 4:08 am

    People will poke fun, but I think he did pretty well to swerve away from "rammed the man-parts" at the last moment.

  13. Karl Weber said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 5:59 am

    This whole kerfluffle doesn't tell us anything about Trump that we didn't already know. However, it does offer yet another example of political hypocrisy in Trump's blaming a teleprompter malfunction for his mistakes. Remember when Republicans repeatedly mocked Obama for supposedly being incapable of delivering a speech without a teleprompter?

  14. loonquawl said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 6:42 am

    I assume the Continental Army was encamped in some part of the country (Maryland) that later became a city, which then was named for Washington ? – that might explain the weirdness after Boston and New York. — On another note: Was the anthem-inspiring engagement at McHenry really considered a victory? It was two sides shelling each other for 24h, hitting mostly nothing, then disengaging.

  15. Wally said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 8:12 am

    So here is a link to the Reddit thread the analysis was in

    https://www.reddit.com/r/bestof/comments/c9xmnj/ufalsedmitriy_perfectly_explains_what_went_wrong/

  16. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 11:08 am

    Finally the so-called intrusive /d/ in 'Fort McHenry' is not really a speech error; it's just a phenomenon that some people do.

    On the way from Latin, French quite regularly inserted a homorganic stop to break up clusters of nasal + liquid that had resulted from loss of unstressed vowels, e.g.:

    humilem 'lowly' > humble
    cinerem 'ash' > cendre
    tenerum 'tender' > tendre
    camera 'room' > chambre

  17. john burke said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 1:58 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer: cf. the Scotsman Stephen Hendry, six-time world snooker champion.

  18. CuConnacht said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 5:30 pm

    I don't think the speechwriters thought that the defense of Fort McHenry took place during the Revolutionary War. They just let an "and" do more work than it ought to do, in a highly compressed history of the US Army. They should have said "and, a generation later, at Fort McHenry . . . ."

    You didn't note the extraneous "after" before "George Washington". He saw the phrase "and named the great George Washington" and thought, consciously or not, that the "after" belonged there.

    That Reddit analysis is pretty acute. But I also heard "ranned the ramparts." And I don't quite hear "manned the airports" at the beginning of the mix-up. It sounds like he catches himself before he quite gets the word "airports" out. "Manned the airpmhmm."

  19. zafrom said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 6:47 pm

    @Wally.
    Thank you. Apparently FalseDmitriy made the comment on reddit. Per reddit.com/r/politics/comments/c9sgx7/trump_once_railed_against_presidents_using/, "FalseDmitriy Illinois…edited 2 days ago" and, farther down the page, "FalseDmitriy original comment, recovered by shiruken @". Also worth reading the page for the follow-up comments. Praise the Power.

  20. Ryan said,

    July 8, 2019 @ 11:49 pm

    I was hoping he'd continue his quick patriotic historical summary by channeling Bill Murray – was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

  21. Ulf said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 7:39 am

    As just one data point, I'm a man who has worked for 35 years in elementary education, and have known exactly one person who uses/used the word "kiddos." She was (and is) a woman, but then again so are 85%+ of the people in the field. There's nothing in my experience about this word that signals "female."

  22. Peter Erwin said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

    I was hoping he'd continue his quick patriotic historical summary by channeling Bill Murray – was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?

    Or even by channeling John Belushi.

  23. James Kabala said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 3:14 pm

    I think of "kiddos" as a word used by a kind of slightly pompous hail-fellow-well-met man (as in male) of a Boomer-or-older generation. Someone like Joe Biden, for example. I would not think of it as a female word at all. The greater evidence that this poster is female is simply that she appears to be an elementary school teacher, a highly female profession in the United States.

  24. Chris C. said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

    @CuConnacht — It struck me that there may have been some text in the speech with a reasonable segue to the bombardment of Fr. McHenry. But then Trump flubbed the line, The teleprompter rolled on as he vamped incoherently, and they were already on the War of 1812 before he synched back up with it.

  25. Bloix said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 6:07 pm

    "The speechwriter was at fault here for introducing the confusing references to 'The Star-Spangled Banner'"
    Yes, it was HIGHLY CONFUSING to allude to he Star Spangled fucking Banner on the fucking Fourth of July. Bad, bad speechwriter to assume that the fucking President of the United fucking States had a third-grade education.
    On "kiddo," the only person I've known to use it was my mother, as an ironic or distancing form of address. To her own children, but in general, too. "Hey, kiddos, it's time to go!" "Well, kiddo, you'l have to figure this one out on your own." Like that.

  26. Andrew Usher said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 6:28 pm

    Chris C.:
    There may have been such a segue, but it can't have been long as Trump kept moving on. Clearly the line he flubbed must have read something like "it manned the ramparts at Fort McHenry". If that had immediately followed 'Yorktown', with the speaker having inserted a suitable pause, I guess it wouldn't be too bad. But it was an invitation to screw up from a person known already for his speaking mistakes. (Again I can't be sure exactly what was on the teleprompter or if it reflected what was originally written, so this is speculating.)

    The previous poster seems to belong to the 'insult Trump at all costs' camp. Some people project the notion that having a president from the other party is the end of the fucking world (profanity used because he used it), and it's just not so. Literally: even a president with his act together completely can't change as much as he, or his voters, would like.

  27. Bloix said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 6:57 pm

    Andrew Usher – if the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES is confused by the word RAMPARTS in a TELEVISED FOURTH OF JULY SPEECH then the PRESIDENT IS AN IDIOT.
    If the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES didn't bother to read in advance a speech that was going to be ON TELEVISION at the big-deal national event that HE PERSONALLY HAD DEMANDED then he can't be trusted to do ANYTHING requiring the slightest degree of preparation.
    But don't over-react. I'm not saying that he's a fascist, or a racist, or a rapist, or a liar, or a con man, or a cheat, or a bully, or a sociopath, or a smug, corrupt, evil, black-hearted villain worse than literally anyone to occupy high office in the United States in our history and doing his level best to equal the cruelty of the iron-fisted dictators he loves so dearly.
    I'm just saying that he's an idiot.

  28. Counterbander said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 8:58 pm

    LL needs a "Like" button. I hereby award one to Bloix.

  29. David P said,

    July 9, 2019 @ 9:34 pm

    @Pflaumbaum – Thank you for that comment. I'm still laughing.

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 5:31 am

    Whilst I would seek to distance myself from Bloix in his/her use of profanity, I would agree with his (mother's) use of "kiddo" as a slightly derogatory form of address (i.e., used only in the vocative). In my idiolect, and that of others whom I know well, the more idiomatic word in the rôle in which it appeared on Reddit would be "kiddies". And to be fair to Bloix, I am by no means convinced that his distate for President Trump has anything to do with party political allegiance — I think it far more likely that it is simply a reflection of his personal assessment of the man's abilities or lack thereof.

  31. mgh said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 12:36 pm

    one commentator suggested that "took over their ports" was misread as "took over the airports", which seemed like a good guess to me.

    (see response to the fifth question in the following q&a
    https://www.electoral-vote.com/evp2019/Pres/Maps/Jul08.html#item-11 )

  32. Nan Feagin said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 1:03 pm

    And on to other world issues. Which is more controversial, a group of women diners being called "you guys" or your kiddies being called "kiddos"?
    There are life-threatening issues to spend our brain power on – find one.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 6:47 pm

    But are these life-threatening issues concerned with language, Nan ? "Other world issues" can be debated on countless fora, but there are relatively few where language and linguistics are the primary concern, and for my money, this is one of the best.

  34. Chris C. said,

    July 10, 2019 @ 6:58 pm

    @Andrew Usher — Had America elected a candidate similar to GWB, it would have been bothersome (particularly if he allowed us to be bamboozled into another useless, expensive war on false pretenses), and Democrats certainly would have opposed him, but not like this. I'm afraid Trump is uniquely disastrous by just about any reasonable measure.

  35. Andrew Usher said,

    July 12, 2019 @ 6:40 pm

    Well, I disagree, even though I'm not a real Trump fan. But I won't go farther on that, because I don't think such political stuff should be brought up here. I think Bloix'x posts were hydterical over-reactions, and derailed this thread from its intended subject. Trump Derangement Syndrome!

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