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On June 1 in Iowa, Donald Trump gave a speech in which he attacked Ron DeSantis from several angles. One of them was DeSantis' variation in pronunciation of his last name (see "Pronouncing 'DeSantis'", 6/3/2023), which Trump characterized as "changing his name", while introducing a puzzling (but promising?) new linguistic term, "syllabolic":

But uh he's going around saying "oh well I can serve for eight years
it takes eight years to fix it".
No he made a big mistake —
uh just like you don't change your name
in the middle of a uh election.

Changed his name in the middle of the election, you don't do that.
You do it before, or after, but ideally you don't do it at all.

I liked it before anyway, I liked his name better before,
I don't like the name change, shall we tell him that?

uh but uh most people don't know what I mean,
no he's actually sort of changed a name.

It's uh syllabolic, they call it,
wants a syllabolic name.

Trump's terminological innovation has been covered (though very lightly) in the mass media, and also a bit on Twitter. Most people seem to think that he meant "syllabic" — though nothing about the DeSantis pronunciation variation is syllabic, except for the fact that all the variants consist of three syllables. The connection to "symbolic" is arguably stronger, in my opinion, since Trump sees the pronunciation uncertainty as symbolic of poor public-relations judgement. Maybe the resulting syllabic/symbolic blend has applications in poetics? In some ethereal realm, Roman Jakobson is raising a glass, and perhaps wondering whether hyperbolic and diabolic should be added to the mix.

I was drawn to this passage in Trump's Iowa speech by reading about his coinage of syllabolic. But after transcribing the passage, I'm also struck by something entirely different, namely (what seems to be) his on-going embrace of filled pauses.

In several earlier posts, I documented Trump's unusually low filled-pause percentage. Thus in "Presidential fluency" (10/31/2017) I wrote

In a number of posts about Donald Trump's rhetorical style, I've noted how seldom he uses filled pauses such as UM and UH in spontaneous speech, compared to other public figures. For example, in "The narrow end of the funnel" (8/18/2016), I noted that filled pauses were 8.2% of Steve Bannon's words (in a sample passage from a panel discussion on The Future of Conservatism), and 4.0% of Hilary Clinton's words in a Vox interview, while three of Trump's unscripted rally speeches had between 0% and 0.05% filled pauses, and in a CNBC interview, Trump used 74 filled pauses in 5329 words, for a rate of 1.4%.

But in "Donald Trump, now with more filled pauses" (1/3/2021), I noted a 6.3% filled-pause rate in (the first few minutes of) his phone call asking Georgia election officials to find more votes.

And in the syllabolic passage transcribed above, there are 6 UHs in 119 words, for about 5% — making UH the second-commonest word, after "it" (with 7) and ahead of "i" (with 5) and "the" (with 4).

Obviously a couple of small samples, on each side of an election that he lost, don't really prove anything. But it would be interested to see whether there really has been a Trumpian trend towards (what I still resist calling) disfluency, and if so, what its time course has been.



    June 15, 2023 @ 5:10 pm

    It's too good a word to leave without a meaning. Linguists! Atteeen-SHUN!

  2. Rick Rubenstein said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 5:41 pm

    Given both the speaker and the intended target, I think a portmanteau of "silly" and "shambolic" fits the bill nicely.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 6:16 pm

    The word "syllabolic" exists, albeit scantily, in the google books corpus in a few contexts where it isn't super-obviously a typo or production error. I can't quickly connect it to Roman Jakobson, but maybe more research is needed? (I am for some reason recalling a conversation I had 15-20 years ago w/ Larry Horn re some differences in subsequent disciplinary influence between Jakobson and Chomsky, but I can't at the moment turn it into a punchline that fits this comment thread.)

  4. JPL said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 6:38 pm

    It's his stand-up act and he's riffing, even less serious than usual. But he said, "syllabolic, they call it"; so who calls it that? (Or who calls what that?) (Maybe he means (what the normal language would express as) that the name change is "syllabic", in the sense that the vowel in one of the syllables is changed; but then how is "syllabic" a property of the name? Maybe 'diabolic' was the other word in his portmanteau.)

  5. Moonfriend said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 8:04 pm

    Donald Drumpf doesn't like it when people change their names.

  6. Peter Taylor said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 4:34 am

    Syllabolic sounds like it should mean Spoonerisms at the level of juggling whole syllables rather than individual phonemes.

  7. David Marjanović said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 5:48 am

    In some ethereal realm, Roman Jakobson is raising a glass, and perhaps wondering whether hyperbolic and diabolic should be added to the mix.

    The abovementioned shambolic shows that the morpheme is well enough established…

    Donald Drumpf doesn't like it when people change their names.

    He didn't change his name; his grandfather did.

  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 7:44 am

    In the "Tortured syllables" thread, Mary Sweeten said « As in the following "I'm like" to indicate [that] he's riffing. ». In this thread, JPL said « It's his stand-up act and he's riffing ». Two instances in three threads is not statistically significant, of course, but I cannot help but wonder why/how "riffing" became the Language Log word of the week …

  9. Tom G said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 8:44 am

    syllabolic: the altering of the pronunciation and/or stress of a word's syllables in order to change the word's symbolic associations.

  10. Jerry Packard said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 8:46 am

    I’ve noticed in that Georgia phone call that his vowel production also is interesting. When he says the word ‘votes’ in his famous ask, he doesn’t produce the usual back diphthong [oU] but rather produces something like [eU], fronting the first component in exaggerated fashion. I have taken that to indicate his self-consciousness on that word, knowing the votes didn’t exist.

  11. Tom G said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 2:57 pm

    example of a syllabolic change: People think Trump is capable, but he is really cay-pa-BULL

  12. Jim said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 3:51 pm

    What we really need to know is whether they also call "covfefe" sybollic.

  13. John C Swindle said,

    June 17, 2023 @ 12:50 am

    The Austrian fellow didn't actually change his name. His father, Alois, changed his own last name to honor Alois's supposed biological father, with a misspelling added by the authorities who recorded the change. The changed name in that form was passed down.

    Would the meaning of Schicklgruber include someone who puts a special stone in their hat and looks into the hat to scry for treasure or recovery of lost objects, like in 19th century America?

  14. Sanchuan said,

    July 12, 2023 @ 9:12 am

    "Symbolic" is only an option if you're taken in by your own transcription as the words are close enough in spelling.

    But I'm confident Mr Trump only pronounced the word; never transcribed it. And what he said can equally be transcribed as "syllable-ic". "Syllable-ic" fits the sentence in a way "symbolic" just doesn't.

    When using the word, Mr Trump's in the middle of an attempt to describe what the whole name change is about. He's explaining, to those not in the know, that DeSantis changed his name because he (DeSantis) "wanted a … name".

    I can't fathom how "symbolic" would even fit this context. It might make some sense to ridicule the name change as symbolic, but that thought wouldn't be ascribed to DeSantis's own "wants".

    My sense is that when Mr Trump was briefed on this phonetic change, and how to talk about it, his adviser (one who may know how to use the word syllabic but not necessarily how to think about it) might have put it in terms of DeSantis wanting the first two letters of his name to be "syllabic", in the sense of "receiving the syllabic weight of a full vowel".

    Those uninitiated to the arcana of English syllabification may well perceive a reduced schwa before a full stressed syllable as some kind of dangling extra initial, one lacking full-syllable status.

    I believe Mr Trump may have just tried to condense "he wants the first two letters of his name to be a syllable, to be syllabic" into "he wants a syllable-ic name".

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