February 6, 2018

"Late in life an artless man has learned that he could leave his linguistic fly unzipped and life would go on. It may not be pretty, but it isn't a sign that his pants are going to fall down."

Concludes the linguist John McWhorter in "What Trump’s Speech Says About His Mental Fitness."

The explanation of the coherence of Trump's casual spoken-word style is excellent, with detailed analysis of a passage that might prompt haters to say "word salad!" but that McWhorter mapped like this:
That fly unzipped metaphor at the end might seem crude and anti-Trumpish, but the gist of the article is that Trump is relaxed and spontaneous, using "parataxis" rather than "hypotaxis." Both involve long sentences. Parataxis is a stringing together of short simple clauses, and hypotaxis is structured with subordinated clauses. You can rewrite a transcript of Trump's spoken word into something that would look like the typical way intelligent educated people write and some trying-too-hard people speak, but it's wrong to think Trump is mentally deficient for speaking the way he does.

32 comments:

Nonapod said...

Some suppose Mr. Trump started talking down deliberately in order to portray folksiness. But this imputes to him a sociological sensitivity, a reflective, outwardly focused theory of mind, that he shows no evidence of otherwise. More likely, Mr. Trump has simply taken the path of least resistance.

Trump is remarkably transparent in this way. He's not putting on an act. What you see is what you get, like it or not. That's a big part of his appeal obviously. Actual politicians dissemble as a matter of course, they put on masks of language that is carefully curated and collaborated for whatever audience they're addressing.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

I'd say Trump is walking around commando with his fly unzipped.

Baceseras said...

Malory, Morte d’Arthur:
Then Sir Bedivere departed, and went to the sword, and lightly took it up, and went to the water side; and there he bound the girdle about the hilts, and then he threw the sword as far into the water, as he might; and there came an arm and an hand above the water and met it, and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished away with the sword in the water.
Parataxis – and (I’m not alone in believing) absolutely ravishing.

Mike Sylwester said...

John McWhorter has given several talks on BookTV. He is interesting and charming.

I hope that BookTV will do one of it's three-hour-long interviews of him.

jimbino said...

Ridiculous! You don't have to do any deep analysis to see that Trump's English is far worse than that of Krauthammer, George Will, or any of the regular announcers of PBS.

Sebastian said...

"Mr. Trump is equally unmoved by any sense that to speak as a president is a kind of kabuki or performance art, in which one doesn’t so much talk as signal."

Minor quibble: I think he is very aware that speaking as president is a form of performance art.

He also signals: half the time, that he is bullshitting. By contrast with O, who signaled that he was lying all the time.

rhhardin said...

Ordinary speech makes no sense at all if accurately transcribed.

That you don't hear the restarts and interruptions and unfinished phrases is what makes an accurate transcription very hard to do. You have to rewind and replay almost every pair of words to force hearing.

J. Farmer said...

@Mike Sylwester:

John McWhorter has given several talks on BookTV. He is interesting and charming.

I hope that BookTV will do one of it's three-hour-long interviews of him.


McWhorter actually appeared on In Depth back in 2008. You can watch his episode here.

McWhorter has also produced several coursesfor The Great Courses, formerly The Teaching Company, which you can review here

Bay Area Guy said...

Here's my inexpert opinion:

Most professionals have to be very careful with our words and overall language. We have memos, and e-mails, and reports to prepare. We have meetings to attend. We have presentations to make. We are jockeying for status in the working hierarchy. We have clients and bosses we want to impress, so we are concerned about how we speak and what we write. Yes, it's a bullshit game, but as long as we have bills to pay and kids to educate, we do it.

Trump, on the other, doesn't give a fuck. He has plenty of money. He has plenty of fame. He has plenty of women. He's not scrambling up the greasy political pole from Congressman to Senator to President.

He bypassed all that.

And, guess what? He still doesn't give a fuck.

I love McWhorter, he's a genius, but even he doesn't quite get Trump.

Tim in Vermont said...

I read a study once about nuns. They looked at their writing and discovered that the ones who wrote more complicated sentences? They were the ones who lived longer. So I have been working on it, the complicated sentence thing, on account of, you know, it’s longevity, that is to say, that people who write in the manner of aforesaid nuns, the complicated writing ones, that is, live longer.

Sebastian said...

"So I have been working on it, the complicated sentence thing, on account of, you know, it’s longevity,"

Tim! You must not have read the research on the life expectancy of nuns who make more logical errors.

Tim in Vermont said...

I don’t think Trump has to do whatever the opposite of “putting on airs” is to relate to regular folks. I think he just does, and not according to any “theory of mind.” I think that painting in Mar a Lago that looks right out of Caddyshack should tell you that. I wonder if he has the Rodney Dangerfield golf bag too?

But liberals are huge into conformity and regimentation, which is why they are so quick to pounce on spelling errors, for one thing, so of course any signs of individuality lead to shunning.

Tim in Vermont said...

Tim! You must not have read the research on the life expectancy of nuns who make more logical errors.

Yeah, that one was a study of South Pacific islanders and cargo cults. I haven’t quite integrated the two yet.

madAsHell said...

For some odd reason, I'm reminded of football half-time speeches.

traditionalguy said...

After two years of slandering his grade level speech, the truth is he has been speaking just fine. It's a great day in the neighborhood.

We were always told that it takes more skill to make the clown dives than a simple pike position. So Trump has mastered a degree of difficulty in speech that the Media and hateful libs can't even recognise.

roesch/voltaire said...

But the authenticity of his "vocal ejaculations" weaving a web of exaggerations and lies only draws more attention to the unzipped mind that maybe missing a few teeth. ( McWhorter gave a lecture here in Madison that was attended by an over-flow crowd that enjoyed his ability to clearly present his academic research in a mixture of formal and informal language much like this opinion piece.)

exiledonmainstreet said...

Tim in Vermont said...
I read a study once about nuns. They looked at their writing and discovered that the ones who wrote more complicated sentences? They were the ones who lived longer."

If that were true, William Faulkner would be celebrating his 121th birthday this year. :)

tcrosse said...

If you live among educated liberals in a diverse academic setting you'd never have heard a wiseguy from Queens, and never realize when he was fucking with you.

Rick Turley said...

Tim in Vermont said...

"I read a study once about nuns. They looked at their writing and discovered that the ones who wrote more complicated sentences? They were the ones who lived longer. So I have been working on it, the complicated sentence thing, on account of, you know, it’s longevity, that is to say, that people who write in the manner of aforesaid nuns, the complicated writing ones, that is, live longer."

Well, sure. But you'll waste all that extra time figuring out how to add in all those additional commas. So I'd call it a wash.

MountainJohn said...

McWhorter was also a semi-regular on Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld, where he demonstrated a fine sense of humor and a willingness to join in the fun.

Fernandistein said...

That little diagram was pitiful. And incomplete - here's the rest of the sentence:

"...the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us."

Mary Beth said...

Trump's speeches are like improvisational jazz. Some people get mad and just want to hear the notes as they were written.

buwaya said...

"If that were true, William Faulkner would be celebrating his 121th birthday this year. :)"

If I read more Faulkner, I would get more sleep.

buwaya said...

What novelist could write Trump?

They would strain even at his dialogue.

wildswan said...

It seems that though the FBI wiretapped Trump on behalf of Hillary they were unable to discover YAH-UBETCHA, his secret plan to win the upper MidWest, by promising to work for better trade deals, cheap energy and a consequent return of manufacturing jobs. McWhorter explains this intelligence failure. Like the Navaho code speakers, Trump speaks in a language that the Dems are unable to process and comprehend as all its rules are entirely different from any they know. This the language used by workers, wives, sports fans and other enemies of the good in real life. Hence millions know what Trump was and is saying - agree or disagree - whereas the bicoasties have thought and still think he isn't saying anything. When they tap his phones and hear his plans, they have a special machine also attached to their other ear which replaces the information thus gained with static.

I know that Trump laid out his plans for year 2 in office in the State of the Union speech and, after year 1, I know he means just what he said. Repairing the military is not a vague empty noise, it is what he is going to do.

But Nancy Pelosi will never find that out. She will continue to hear Hitler-Hitler-Hitler-Hitler. That's what her mouth is doing when she has to be silent, it moves around mumbling inside - Hitler-Hitler-Hitler-Hitler. Just like going lalalala- can't hear you lalalala - deplorables Hitler-Hitler-Hitler-Hitler white misogynist Christian man Hitler-Hitler-Hitler-Hitler homophobe, flag waving, apple pie, jobs Hitler-Hitler-Hitler-Hitler black employHitler-Hitler-Hitler-HitlerbonusHitler-Hitler-Hitler-Hitler etc.

Michael said...

"More likely, Mr. Trump has simply taken the path of least resistance."

Or, to put it another way, he has discovered over 50 years in public life what works for him. Whether this shows high intelligence or a very highly refined low cunning, or some of each, is neither here nor there. To those who mistake sophistication for intelligence, it is gibberish. To those who "speak the language" it is persuasive, and funny.

Tim in Vermont said...

I still want to hear Trump do Positively Fourth Street, spoken word:

[To Paul Ryan:]
You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning

You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that’s winning

[To John McCain:]
You say I let you down
You know it's not like that
If you're so hurt
Why then don’t you show it?

You say you lost your faith
But that's not where it's at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

[To Hillary]
I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You’re in with

Do you take me for such a fool
To think I'd make contact
With the one who tries to hide
What he don’t know to begin with?

[To Obama:]
You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, "How are you?", "Good luck"
But you don’t mean it

When you know as well as me
You'd rather see me paralyzed
Why don't you just come out once
And scream it?

[To Jeb:]
No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I’d rob them

And now I know you're dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don't you understand
It’s not my problem?

[To Chuck Schumer:]
I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is
To see you

Bob Loblaw said...

If you live among educated liberals in a diverse academic setting you'd never have heard a wiseguy from Queens, and never realize when he was fucking with you.

That's my take. They expect Trump to be one of them, to play by their rules, to adhere to their norms. He's certainly capable of doing that, but he doesn't care to. That's what hurts the most - he's proving the culture they've carefully constructed only matters to them and not to the rest of the country.

Tom said...

So he’s James Elroy?

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

Damn! Love the way McWhorter snatches metaphors out of the air. Have him on Great Courses Plus.

Trumpain casual-speak is close to what you hear from TV talkers. It is stream of consciousness speaking. Trump is more informative, however because
..there is usually a point he is trying to make, whereas TV talkers are often just filling air time;
..there is only one person talking at a time, whereas the TV babblers irritatingly interrupt each other.

If you read newspaper articles aloud, as I do daily, you will find much of it stream of consciousness writing:
..sentences, even paragraphs, frequently begin with "And..."
..phrases and clauses mount one upon the other to form a writhing mass; subject and verb become lost in the swarm;
..pronouns become estranged from their antecedents;
..artifacts of verbal communication ("the law's gonna") confound the reader.

Roy Lofquist said...

"If you live among educated liberals in a diverse academic setting you'd never have heard a wiseguy from Queens, and never realize when he was fucking with you."

Winner! I'm stealing it.

Baceseras said...

Talking isn't prose. We talk to get our meaning out, and to get it across. It can be a messy process, and nothing wrong with that. A lot of us have learned the trick of making our instantaneous speech sound like prose - it's a good trick but just a trick, don't overvalue it. Olivier's speech accepting his lifetime achievement Oscar seemed magnificent in the moment it happened - you can see Nick Nolte in the audience, looking awestruck, as if beholding some epiphany of a god. But the speech was no more than bloviating. It conveyed graciousness and thanks, which was all it had to do. The style may be empty (it is, it is), but it gives you a pleasant glow to hear it. Olivier had spent so much of his life among English schoolboys (former English schoolboys, I mean) for whom the trick of talking that way is a competitive skill, that of course he had picked it up, mastered it, excellent mimic that he was. Still, it's nothing essential.