No, Trump Doesn’t Speak “A Separate Language”

As the world is still reeling with varying levels of disbelief, anger, and fear in the weeks since Donald Trump has taken office in the US, there is still a desire to find some explanation for his popularity. How is it that some groups of people just can’t see through the lies, the manipulations, the threats, and the abject incompetence? What tools could we use to help understand this? With varying degrees of quality, I’ve seen several attempts to answer that question with reference to Trump’s unique public speaking (and Tweeting) style.

Here, I’m picking out a recent example of a Twitter rant that was particularly frustrating to me. I copy it here in screenshot form.



The most frustrating thing about this type of linguistic analysis is that it’s based primarily on assumptions about how language works, which in fact don’t rest on solid ground. Trump’s speaking style is far from a separate ‘language’, and while I appreciate the reference to one of this linguistnerd’s favourite Star Trek episodes, it isn’t remotely similar to that form of metaphorical/mythical/historical talk. The specific quote that is analyzed as three “sentence fragments” is nothing of the sort – each of the three is easily analyzed into its subject/predicate phrase structure, and each could essentially be meaningfully stated on its own as long as you know the pronominal referents (the one element that comes off as grammatically awkward when stated in isolation is the “you” in “You look at what happened in Sweden last night”. Delete the you, however, and you have a very common standard English sentence – I would use the linguistic term hortative to describe it [Ed: You linguists love your technical terms, don’t you?]). Sure, there are connotations and implicatures to what he is saying. But that’s a basic feature of talking, not some uniquely Orwellian “different language” that Trump is using. And in fact, Trump does complete his thought – he doesn’t describe in detail what happened (or, of course, didn’t actually happen at all) in Sweden, not because he’s invoking some reference points only those in the know will understand, but because it’s not the focus of his statement. He finishes the thought with “They’re having problems they never thought possible”. The utterance is entirely grammatical, with maybe one question mark for awkwardness, and at a discourse level, its overall meaning is absolutely clear.

This example annoys me enough to write about first because it was widely shared in my Twitter feed with many thumbs up emojis and exclamation marks of praise, but second because it illustrates a pattern of faux-linguistic analysis that is most often used in a classist/racist manner, rather than against people in power like Trump. It draws on a literary/written/schooled form of “grammatical correctness” to downgrade this way of speaking as not just odd or different, but as full on not English. And while it’s absolutely the case that Trump doesn’t speak as most presidents do in his public addresses, he uses linguistic forms that are extremely common in everyday spoken versions of the language. Generally such contexts have been treated as sites for delivery of prepared oratory, which uses much more literary style. In an everyday conversation, I might easily say something like “Look at what happened with my baby last night, she wouldn’t sleep, I’m having so much trouble concentrating”. I wouldn’t write that in a formal context, but that doesn’t make it “a different language”, and grammatically/stylistically, it’s essentially the same thing. And the vast majority of the time someone assesses these ways of speaking as “ignorant” or somehow fundamentally different/incomprehensible, it’s a form of marginalization of those who don’t regularly employ formal registers and schooled structures.

The thing is, I can relate to the urge to find some way of making sense of what seems like a chasm of difference in reactions to what Trump has to say. While I recoil in horror literally every time he opens his mouth, and while I respond to commentary on “what happened in Sweden” with a locked-in “WTF” face because I know it’s another “alternative fact”, somehow we have to figure out how to communicate that to swaths of people who really do believe actual real truth is a product of a giant fake-news media conspiracy. But, much as I love my discipline and value the explanatory potential that the study of language brings to politics and power, I don’t think the foundation of this divide is in a comprehension of his “language” that his followers have, but we don’t. In this case, I agree with many scholars of colour and critical race theorists who have pointed out that Trump’s popularity among white people is unsurprising in light of the historical and present patterns of white supremacy and racism. If “we” can’t see how those prejudices are being invoked in Trump’s language, or how his followers accept the lies that confirm their underlying views about racialized people, it’s not because “we” don’t speak Trump’s language. It’s because “we” haven’t been paying attention to whiteness.


Intent, Social Responsibility, and Alternative Facts

The world has felt intensely awful this past week, and a sense of existential dread and foreboding has settled into my knees. And within that, the only real, concrete thing that I feel able to do is teach, and speak, and sometime to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and so here I am.

Kellyanne Conway handed a gift to the comedy and internet meme worlds when she suggested that the Trump administration’s statements about attendance rates at the inauguration should be seen not as lies or misrepresentations, but as “alternative facts”. The Orwellian subtext has so rapidly become text that it is destabilizing to even think about, and of course that is, at least to some extent, the point. But this conversation about Trump and his absolute disregard for truth is not a new one, and watching how we have gotten to this point feels illustrative to me.

This article from the good old days of 2015 gets at some major parts of this matter. The key point:

Donald Trump lied. And yet traditional news organizations can’t or won’t call him that in the name of “objectivity”—appearing to favor one party over another—even if one candidate is spreading a rumor that unfairly maligns an entire race.

Post-enlightenment Western cultures are enthralled with the ideal of “objectivity-as-truth”, and such objectivity requires the observer to stand outside the context of the observation itself in order to get an accurate view. Taking a position internal to the story – one that comments directly on the relationship between Trump’s statements and the actual world – would violate this tenet. “There are three sides to every story”, the adage goes, “your side, my side, and the truth”. This framing places “the truth” in an essentially unreachable place, neither yours nor mine, and validates the idea that wherever it is, it is outside of our rooted positions. The central crack in this nice ideal view of a world in which we have to agree to disagree and collectively navigate our way through inaccessible complexities of reality is that it fails to adequately account for cases in which one of the sides is actually equivalent to the truth.

Fast-forwarding towards ‘alternative facts’, there is discussion now about whether it is appropriate to call Donald Trump (or Conway, or Spicer, or any of nose-156596_960_720the others speaking for him) “a liar”. This NPR piece exemplifies the main principle behind even raising this question, which focuses on the concept of speaker intent as the central relevant point, before concluding that, because we cannot read Trump’s mind, we cannot conclusively declare him “a liar”.

This is, of course, to use the polite term (thanks M*A*S*H*) “grade A, 100% bull cookies”. But it’s both persuasive and pervasive because it ties in to some important common sense Western conceptions about how truth, knowledge, and intent work. While explaining the linguistic/anthropological theories behind these conceptions would take up far too much of your time (Ed.: which you should totally be spending calling your MP and demanding real action instead of reading this, unless of course you’ve done that already, in which case carry on), what I do want to point out is that there are many alternative understandings of the relationship between truth, responsibility, and intent.

The theme of “intent” and how it connects to a lie always makes me think of the way some of my Amazonian friends would use the Portuguese word for a lie (“mentira”) for situations in which the person was, to my mind, much more likely simply mistaken. If a person said, for example, that an event had happened three years ago rather than five, with no motivation to have me believe the former, I felt odd when it was categorized as a lie, but when I explained that fact, I was told it was the same thing. If the speaker didn’t really know the answer, they should’t give information as though they did. I have not had a chance to explore this idea in depth, but I have a hunch it may be connected to the fact that the Indigenous languages these Amazonians speak make use of what are called evidentials – basically, ways of grammatically encoding how you know the information communicated. If the information is hearsay, or if you are uncertain about it, you have to say so directly in your statements. The bare presentation of information without a sense of source and authority, then, appears the same, and functions socially as, a lie, in its insufficient verification of truth.

The question of “intent” re-emerges repeatedly in relation to accusations of racism or other forms of prejudice. A example of this emerged in a recent discussion I had on Twitter about how anti-hate speech laws work, in practice, in Canada (thanks to James Leask for so concisely getting at major issues). By locating the racism so firmly within the intention of speakers/actors, we create a huge loophole in which we can never call any statements racist, because that is a thing that is located in the unknowable, inaccessible ether of their consciousness. It’s because of this that anti-oppression advocates often emphasize the need to interpret speech in terms of its impacts – in other words, to see the existence of racism and assess racist speech as something whose meaning is interactionally produced. not a nebulous beliefs located in people’s minds.

The same thing applies, albeit in different ways, to truth and lies. As we teeter into a post-truth world, where lies proliferate without liars to speak them, I want to tune in to how that is happening, beyond the obvious Newspeak terminology produced by people like Conway. Instead of upholding these ideological notions about where truth is, and how difficult it is to access, we need to dig in to the roots of how a focus on individual intent and a continued belief in the value of detached observation create the conditions for “alternative facts” to become materially significant. Because the material significance, as this weekend has shown us, is huge.

The Politics of Bilingualism

Last week, 13 of the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) faced off in a French-language debate. Kevin O’Leary, who has quickly taken the lead in the race [Ed.: WHELP!], is noticeably absent from that list because he didn’t declare his candidacy until a few days after the debate had taken place – a fact that did not register as coincidental for many observers.

Unfortunately for francophone Canada, for the majority of these candidates, the political ideas, commitments, and capacity for engaged discussion were not really available for them to assess, due to the limited French-language skills many of them had. Of the 13, two were native French speakers, and, according to a panel of reviewers organized by the CBC, only two of the non-native speakers demonstrated the ability to, well, debate in the French language (ie. communicate without reliance on pre-written notes).

There are a couple of things this illustrates about the politics of bilingualism (and the bilingualism of politics) in Canada.

  1. Despite the basic premise of official bilingualism, it requires little scratching of the surface to observe that this is a very assymetrical bilingualism. It is possible for monolingual anglophones to achieve a high level of political success at the federal level, while the reverse is almost unfathomable. Prime Minister Jean Chretien comes to mind as an example of a francophone whose accented English was frequently mocked or critiqued in English Canada, but in truth his ability to express himself fluently in both languages was quite strong (and any issues with his pronunciation were also related to his childhood Bell’s palsy, the mocking of which is certainly textbook ableism). In short, though: any candidate for leadership of a nationwide party (the term ‘nationwide’ there communicating the exception of the Bloq Quebecois, which only runs candidates in Quebec [Ed.: Canadian politics is complicated, yo]) that couldn’t debate in English would quite simply never consider a run.
  2. I don’t think it’s a coincidence this linguistic gap is so significant within the Conservative Party in particular. The regionalized nature of Canadian politics is such that the CPC is able to focus on winning seats mainly in the West and in suburban Ontario, and Quebec is not a factor. The Liberal party, and recently the NDP, relies heavily on campaigning in Quebec in order to win a significant number of seats and contend for government. The ways in which this regional pattern of partisanism maps onto language generates a self-reinforcing dynamic that ultimately strengthens the connections between language-region-partisan politics in ways that, to my mind unfortunately, limit the terms of debate. Some analysts believe the CPC needs to pay more attention to Quebec in forthcoming elections, but it’s also possible they could campaign with more force in Atlantic Canada and Ontario in order to gain back the seats Trudeau took in 2015.
  3. Say what you will about the poor showing in French of some of the candidates in the debate – at least they showed up and made an effort to communicate their positions to francophone Canada. Kevin O’Leary, in choosing to completely avoid the debate (by days), dismisses the very notion that the French language, and the concerns of its speakers, matter to his vision for Canada. O’Leary likes to claim that being from Montreal, he is able to understand Quebecois concerns, but detaching Quebecois from the French language seems like a recipe for failure (in Quebec, and with French speakers across the country) to me.
  4. As Celine Cooper observes in the analysis I also linked above, the language skills of each of the various candidates can’t be detached from the way that language policy is organized across the country – with each province taking responsibility for education, and official language teaching incorporated often as an obligation rather than as something that provinces understand to be central to their locally-based needs, it requires some effort for individuals to obtain English-French bilingualism. If widespread bilingualism were to become a real priority, the federal and provincial governments would have to work out a way to implement that; the fact that language policy in Canada has remained essentially static for decades would seem to indicate we are fine with the regionalized distribution of our official languages, and everything this implies for electoral politics.

It feels a bit indulgent to be writing this during the days after Donald Trump has firmly put down his signpost in the realm of the “English Only” movement in the United States by deleting the Spanish language version of the White House web pages, but I am often surprised at how even Canadians seem to lack understanding of the social dynamics underlying official bilingualism in this country. Language policy, as it turns out, is a complex thing that can’t be reduced to what happens on paper, but has to be understood in relation to what it looks like in practice.