Film Review: Conlanging (Warning: May nerd-splode)

This past weekend, I was lucky to be able to attend the premiere of the documentary film Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues. For those unaware, “conlang” is short for “constructed language”, so “conlanging” would be the verb form, because of course it

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Film logo from http://conlangingfilm.com/

needs a verb form. In contrast to natural languages, which develop in social groups without a large scale plan by a single creator (or a few creators), conlangs are consciously developed for various purposes. This is a film that engages with the people who create languages, professionally or privately, and those who learn and use them. It’s a film that cares deeply about the conlang community, and many of the people in it were present at the premiere because it was scheduled to coincide with the 7th Language Creation Conference. I will cut to the chase in my review here: this movie is fantastic. If you are in any way a language nerd, it is amazing. If you are some other kind of nerd, I think it would also be amazing. If you are not a nerd at all, I don’t know what you like, so I have no idea, but maybe one of you can tell me what you think after I make you watch it for my class. [Full disclosure: One of the executive producers, Christine Schreyer, is a close friend of both of the bloggers here, and the reason I went to the film in the first place. You should still believe what I have to say about it].

 

The film traces the history of constructed languages, which dates back to the 11th century or so. I was fascinated to learn that the first known (incomplete) conlang was developed by a relatively anonymous nun, who was subsequently followed by some well-known luminaries in philosophy, like Sir Thomas More. From the beginning, the filmmakers establish a thread of examining what motivates people to create languages, and this human focus is what gives the examples weight beyond the fun language nerdery. There are two main threads that run through these motivations, which actually pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, encapsulated in relatively well-known languages like Esperanto, there is the desire to overcome the messy baggage of trying to communicate across deep differences. One woman, raised with Esperanto as one of her native languages in the former Soviet Union, expressed her appreciation for the language as transcending culture and politics  (something that made this anthropologist give the screen a little eyebrow raise, but it’s an interesting view of linguistic utopia). On the other hand, several language creators found something profound in this craft because they were able to give voice to the profound difference that they felt, to a sense of self that was indescribable using the limited tools of socially developed and agreed upon tongues. One of the most powerful expressions of this view comes from a young trans man who found not only honesty, but also safety and secrecy, in a language his abusive parents could not access.

What all of the creators share, and what I think many linguists and others would find surprising, is a deep sense of the artistry of what they do. Language creation is complex, planned, expressive, and creative. This might make sense, as many of the most well known conlangs (like Klingon or Na’vi) are part of elaborate alternative worlds, but there are also those who play more directly with the forms available to them in their chosen medium of language. When they share their creations with others, whether it’s through conference presentations, online chats, or actively learning the languages someone else has created, there is a powerful admiration for and consciousness of both form and meaning embedded within them. The film highlights both product and process, giving examples of languages based on communication by handholding touch (developed by a couple who can communicate subtly when in a crowd), languages that are exclusively written (drawing attention to all the ways that this would be different from the ways we currently use writing in a linear way to represent speech), or even to creative ways of expressing verb tense. A resonant image comes from the language creator who articulates how, when pre-existing language is stripped away and you try to imagine how you would describe an object like a flower, you see that flower differently, recognizing its component parts, its placement, its smell and feel.

And of course, there were also some wonderful pieces of pop culture and behind-the-scenes anecdotes of language creation for film and television, which is probably the easy draw of this film. Finding out how constructed languages change differently from natural languages (a lot of weight can be given to what happens when an actor makes an error in their Klingon, for example) was something I desperately wanted more of (and, fortunately, was able to get, as Paul Frommer, who created Na’vi, and Mark Okrend, who created Klingon, were both extremely forthcoming in a Q and A session, as well as in conversation afterwards, revealing patterns of emergent language ideologies in conlang communities that I have filed on my list of research topics for when I run out, because that will totally happen). I also appreciated the amount of time dedicated to what I know to be my friend Christine’s incredibly insightful work on how revitalization efforts for endangered languages can learn from conlang communities. In both cases, traditional second language learning methods are not necessarily available (you can’t just move to Pandora for a summer for immersion Na’vi, for example), speakers and learners may be geographically and socially distant from one another, and an awful lot of work may have to be done from written texts. This is a connection that, I noted several times in conversation, more endangered language activists need to think about.

I walked away from the film inspired to try my hand at conlanging, just to see what I might find myself having to say if I did it (and if I do, I will definitely blog what I learn). If I do, I may also find an answer to my most burning question: what makes a bad conlang? I can’t imagine a bad language, so it feels to me that as long as the language is a complete one, it will have something interesting in it. A few creators talked about their earliest efforts as teenagers, noting that, like my old terrible teenage poetry, these would be better left uncovered, and…that just made me want to uncover them, to see what a bad language might look like. The only clear consensus on bad language creation was that not bothering to create the language (putting up meaningless gibberish) would be bad (note: during the Q and A, both the panelists and the conlangers in the audience were clearly anti-Arrival on this basis).

In sum: The film should be available to order in August, and if you are interested in language, in diverse arts, or in how people see the world through multiple lenses, you should buy it. If you teach in a linguistics or anthropology department, you should get your library to buy it, and you should show it to your intro classes. It does a better job articulating what is fascinating, exciting, and fun about linguistics than just about anything I’ve come across.

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Conscious Word Creation

Members of primarily English-speaking communities (and those of many other large, widely-spoken, culturally dominant languages) rarely encounter a situation in which their language doesn’t have a word for something they need to say. Sure, there are the proverbial “untranslatable” words (which is a whole other thing to unpack, really), but English does have a word for the German-associated emotional concept of ‘schadenfreude’. It’s schadenfreude. If the term can be the title and central focus of a Broadway song, it’s pretty thoroughly integrated into our lexicon. In any case, when we encounter a situation where we don’t feel like we have a word for something, we borrow it, or we make one up. All speakers are essentially able to make words up; the question of whether they are taken up broadly and clearly enough to really ‘count’ as lexical items in that language is the one that dictionary-makers wrestle with constantly (I will almost certainly have a post about whatever word becomes the cause of outcry when it is authenticated as a ‘real word’ by Oxford, or Websters, or whatever, next year).

Speakers of very small languages have a fundamentally different experience. One of the defining features of a language that is losing ground to one or more dominant others is that it becomes used in fewer and fewer domains or contexts. It is less likely to be spoken in schools, in political leadership, in media, in business, in courts of law, in medical centres, etc. A common goal of language revitalization and reclamation is to bring it back into all areas of life for its speakers. In trying to do this, speakers and learners often encounter situations in which no one knows the word for a given concept – in some cases because it never existed (like with words for newer technology) and in some cases because it’s been forgotten as no one has used the language in those domains for several generations. In these cases, the stakes are different – borrowing words from the dominant language might be fine, sometimes, or for some languages, but there is often the (legitimate) fear that this will simply result in the complete use of those dominant languages because they’re ‘easier’. Inventing new words can be fine, but usually, there isn’t the body of speakers who can take the word for a test drive and see if it works in context; in addition, many communities have different beliefs about who has the authority to create new contributions to the language (it may be Elders, it may be a group of local linguists, it may be a community as a whole). The values that inform what makes one form a ‘good’ representation of its meaning are often deeply rooted in the cultural framework.

All this is to lead up to what I think is an especially lovely example of conscious, considered word creation, discussed in this short article about New Maori words for disabilities and mental health conditions. The story describes the specific words for ‘autism’ as translating directly as ‘his/her own time and space’ and for what we call ‘disability’ as ‘to have ability, otherly abled, enabled’. It clearly describes the values underlying these choices – consultation with the community of people the words describe, with the goal of having them feel inclusion, safety, and lack of judgment from their potential health caregivers. It also drop some information between the lines about how both Maori language and whanau health are being addressed as parts of a broader approach to improvement in their lives. Language development is a process incorporated within mental health initiatives, not one that is being done by linguists and then stapled on to these other concerns. In other words, language is embedded in understandings of health and wellbeing, and in treatment for health concerns. In addition, the ‘preferred language’ of Maori is being welcomed into these domains, so even where people may be fluently bilingual, they are able to access vital services that support their greatest vulnerabilities based on preference and comfort.

At the same time, there are elements of the process that tweak my anthropological eye, notably that the idea of ‘autism’ is treated as a straightforward, translatable concept, without addressing the implications of such a diagnosis as a socially-embedded phenomena. Some insights from medical anthro would be very welcome here. There’s also the pattern of reporting the ‘meaning’ of newly invented terms using the more literal gloss into English. Obviously, this is a phenomenon based in the use of English for reporting, but its widespread prevalence deserves more scrutiny than it gets. This isn’t to return to the ‘untranslatability’ trope mentioned above, but it is to note that translation is much more nuanced than this framing might suggest. There is often a notion that by presenting these kinds of glosses, we English speakers are able to gain a clear insight into the cultural world of speakers of these languages, when that strikes me as dismissive of the full weight of socially embedded meaning. This makes sense for short, journalistic reports, of course, but is something I see in more academic work in the area, and it is definitely something we need to think about changing.

(PS. Shortly after I bookmarked this post, I saw someone tweet about disliking the word for autism in one of the Canadian Indigenous languages – I believe it was Anishnaabemowim – but my internet research skills are suffering from summer atrophy and I lost it. If anyone knows anything about words for these concepts in other Indigenous languages, I would be very interested in expanding this discussion).

 

The Politics of Naming: Languages Edition

After my last post on the use of Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) in the Canadian House of Commons, I received a comment on Twitter that asked why I was changing the name of the language. When I objected that I was not, in fact, the one making the change (since the name I was using was the one used by its speakers for generations prior to colonization), the commenter responded:

 

I was…a bit swift and facetious in my dismissal of this comment on Twitter (Ed: You kind of have to work on how Twitter does that to you. SS: Yeah, that’s fair). I was somewhat surprised (because Twitter) to learn that the commenter, Martin Haspelmath, is actually a linguist who has thought quite extensively on the implications of language naming. As another commenter pointed out, he has, in fact, written an article on the subject which was published in the (OPEN ACCESS!) journal Language Documentation and Conservation. So stepping back from my initial reaction, I wanted to consider the argument presented.

The first point to note is that proper names – for people, places, and things like languages – are complex and unique linguistic items. Their degree of specificity (in other words, the limited nature of their referent) makes them function differently than other nouns, including with respect to processes of translation, which is particularly relevant to the example discussed. In Haspelmath’s article, he outlines principles for naming languages for the purposes of the English-language resource Glottolog, which is intended to provide accessible information about lesser-known languages of the world. These principles include some motivations for changing the name of the language, including the possibility that old names become “unacceptable” for some reason and therefore require changing, and that speakers themselves should be the central in bringing forward that objection. He also acknowledges complexity in establishing how these objections emerge, especially in cases where there is no formal body that speaks for “the community” to which the language belongs (the idea of an easily definable “community” is one that I have also pointed out as problematic for purposes of “community-based” research, so I appreciate this point).

At the same time, I think there is a fundamental point missing in the article as a whole, and definitely in the short conversation that emerged under the constraints of 140 character interactions. That point is one that we, as anthropologists, are always hammering at: context.

Part of my snappy response to Haspelmath’s tweet was based on what I still find to be incredibly condescending in his judgment about the use of “Kanien’kéha” instead of “Mohawk” – the idea that the decision to use the former term denies the language an English form and therefore impoverishes it. In this formulation, the English language name, and the apparent accessibility that it provides to a general audience, is a pathway for transference of wealth, a formulation that reeks of colonial ideologies. And, as others commented in the Twitter exchange, this is precisely the grounds on which a name like “Mohawk” is only now starting to fall out of favour – the language acquired its English-language name under circumstances of genocidal violence, land theft, cultural destruction, and linguistic elimination (aka “colonialism”). The quick comparison to Japanese or German completely erases that vast difference in context, and the use of a metaphor like “deprivation” of an English name (when English naming has been primarily used to deprive Indigenous peoples and languages of their value and place in the social order) is downright offensive.

As noted, the article acknowledges a much greater degree of complexity, but still, to my mind, shows some disturbing trends. For one, it unquestioningly accepts certain forms of authority as entitled to sanction name-changes. These include academic prominence (“the usage of prominent authors is given substantial weight”, point 11 on the list outlined on p. 91), or minimally, status as an academic linguist. Where speakers’ own valuations are introduced, it’s with caveats that this is best done within defined structures of community authority – and while, as I’ve already noted, communities are incredibly complex things, these types of organizations are often formed in relation to and using models based in colonial governments. All in all, the result is a context in which colonial terms of reference and academic hierarchies are used as gatekeepers to a community’s right to self-definition and self-labeling, and that’s uncomfortable at best.

In the end, I want to call in to question the central assumption Haspelmath introduces to the conversation – that language names are, first and foremost, English words. Without delving in to a long theoretical argument about how the boundaries – and even the idea of boundedness – of languages are socially constructed, and not objective, entities, this claim works to define the context on terms that centralize English-speaking users of the names. In other words, rather than attuning to nuanced multilingual contexts of the meaning of different types of English-language names, it creates a context in which the rules are set, first and foremost, by English speakers, and, ultimately, colonial ideologies about language and its meanings. This is not to dismiss the problem Haspelmath faces with respect to his Glottolog project, which requires him to make decisions about the names assigned to and information given about a huge range of languages, many of which are currently undergoing shifts in sociopolitical status and meaning as a result of language revitalization projects and other Indigenous rights initiatives. But it is to emphasize that the project of naming and cataloguing languages is an act of power, situated within fields of power that are both pre-existing and actively created by the language namers.

Power and context, and the power to create context, may not be explicitly acknowledged, but they are never in fact absent from discussions about languages and the language we use to talk about them. Indeed, in the context of motivating his work on Glottolog, Haspelmath’s tweet makes a lot more sense – but even there, the role that English (and those who define the boundaries of what counts as English) plays in these descriptions should not be presumed as a neutral field. I could outline some specifics of my discomfort with “Mohawk” over “Kanien’kéha”, but ultimately these are less significant than my discomfort with accepting English as the field that sets the rules about language names. Hard to change? Of course it is. But no one said decolonization would be easy.

OK. I’ll covfefe.

See what I did there?

I took that weird typo Donald Trump made last week and I stuck it into a sentence. I used it as a verb, and a specific type of verb at that – you can tell, because this is a familiar sentence format in English, where we would usually use something like “play”. And because covfefe has no actual denotational meaning, it gets to take on the meaning of the usual word, but with a strong connotational or indexical meaning of “I am making fun of Trump”.

The bulk of the covfefe fun went down while I was sleeping, and by the time I got to the internet, it was a tired mess of its usual self, the stink of the covfefe hangover lingering strong in the air. Since then, covfefe has gotten the linguistic treatment in media from Gretchen McCulloch, who writes about the morphophonemics of the word, on the popular blog Language Log, where they’ve mostly focused on compiling the best examples of covfefeism, and by Language Jones, who ran a complex semantic analysis of Trump’s tweets to define the lexical space into which covfefe would fit.

There’s something about covfefe, though, that helps break my blogger’s block and gets me wanting to add to the pile. What’s interesting from a linguistic anthropological perspective is how this word, with it’s really unusual origin story, is having its meaning assigned, changed, extended, and changed again in very rapid succession by the ways it is used. There are people suggesting it should be a Starbucks drink. Companies are incorporating it into their advertising slogans. Hillary Clinton inserts it twice into a common cliché, making it play the role of both the fragile glass and the damaging stones in Trump’s metaphorical house. On the pro-Trump side, several people react to the mockery by using covfefe to murbandictionarycovfefeean things like “irrational“, or “deserved punishment“. While traditional lexicography can’t possibly deal with something that moves this quickly or has this much oddness to it, the user-driven Urban Dictionary and game-based Words with Friends dictionary operate by different rules and have each tried to summarize the meaning of this elusive new ‘word’.

In trying to understand what covfefe means, it quickly becomes apparent that it means nothing, but also everything. As I mentioned above, we ascertain some basic information about each use of covfefe by interpreting it in light of what it’s replacing within familiar phrase structures, but it’s still hard to define what it actually means even in those limited contexts. We can basically understand that Clinton’s use makes covfefe refer to some kind of material, but not what kind of material it is – it’s both like glass and like stone, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s performing a dual function. I’m not sure there’s a word for this type of item, but I want to call it something like an empty lexeme, because we can pour whatever meaning we want to into it, and it takes it on. In another sharp point of insight, Gretchen McCulloch points out that the -fefe morpheme is self referential – they refer back to the meme itself, not to anything outside of it. Usage patterns for covfefe tell us little about what the speaker thinks about this very new word with an already odd birth story, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. What they actually tell us is how the speaker feels about Donald Trump, his careless Twitter presence, and his tendency toward bullshittery in the extreme. This last component was only made more prevalent when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that “the president and a small group of people knew exactly what he meant” (Ed: Wait, what’s up with that headline, though? Covfspiracy? Seriously? SS: Too many morfefes, too little time).

Maybe it’s my tired brain, but I honestly can’t think of another example of a word with this kind of flexible denotation but very specific implication. And while of course I know there are more important things going on in the world, there’s something about this particular brand of language fun that I can’t quite let go of, so excuse me while I go grab myself some covfefe and get down to serious covfefe.

 

Snapshots of Multilingualism

As I write this, I’m sitting in an airport in Brussels waiting for a flight back to Toronto. I’ve spent the last week mainly in Barcelona, attending the First International Conference on the Revitalization of Indigenous and Minority Languages. My brain and my heart are both full and energized by great conversations, interesting presentations, and supportive colleagues (both familiar and newly encountered).

In addition to the book-learning that was happening, though, being in highly multilingual spaces (first Barcelona, and then a day in Brussels due to stopover scheduling) with highly multilingual (and language-savvy) people meant that even the simplest interactions included linguistic negotiations, moving between or across different languages, and meaning making not only through the words chosen, but the codes chosen to say them in. Some snapshots to capture my point:

  • The opening of the conference was delivered in Catalan, Spanish, English, and Quechua. Some of the speakers self-translated what they had said from one language into another, while others used one to say some things, then said different things in another of the languages, and still others used one of the languages and stopped. There were Catalan sign language translators for these and the plenary sessions, and I was incredibly impressed with their ability to translate from multiple languages (the only one that vexed them was Quechua).
  • Mutual intelligibility across romance languages gets really interesting when you throw in some of the lesser known languages. One conference presenter, Guillem Belmar Viernes, a native Catalan speaker, told me how joyful he felt being able to speak Catalan with a speaker of Lombard (a Northern Italian language), and understanding each other perfectly (an interactional variety I called ‘Lombardalan’). Another linguist mentioned that he had taken a year of Catalan language classes in his undergraduate days, and that the prerequisite was one year of either French or Spanish, because the instructor used the two to triangulate to the in-between point of Catalan.
  • At the absolute opposite end of the language-learning technique spectrum were some Indigenous language instructors and teachers who emphasized the need to move away from the use of previously known languages like English (especially since the differences between these is likely to create far more confusion than bridging). I was in a group of people, speaking English, and as we got into an elevator a stranger also stepped in, and the very inspiring Cherokee language professor that was with us, Ben Frey, immediately told the stranger, entirely in Cherokee, that he liked his hat. The stranger was evidently confused, but Ben simply repeated his statements with more gestures and a bit slower. “Context-based language teaching”, Ben said when I complimented him on the interaction. I mentally filed this away under the category of “awesome”.
  • While almost everyone I encountered was very comfortable using English to interact with tourists like myself, I still prefer to make an effort to communicate using one of the local languages. In Spain, this meant fumbling through Spanish mainly by way of Portuguese, which worked a lot of the time but also caused people to give me odd looks. At one point, I was asking a fellow customer to help figure out which lineup I needed to be in, and we were both using somewhat broken Spanish and a lot of gestures…and about 30 seconds after that was finished I heard him talking to his family in Brazilian Portuguese.
  • My day in Brussels tells me it is a really interesting linguistic place, at least in the tourist area, and probably elsewhere as well. The number of different languages being spoken around me, on the train, in the museum, and in the chocolate shops, was just staggering. The way this shows up in stores and restaurants, like the Korean “Chez Kimchi” just outside my hotel, or the photo below, would be especially fun to unpack. Another instance of minor mutual intelligibility in the Romance languages emerged, as I went to an Italian restaurant and one of the two servers primarily used Italian to speak to me, while I responded in French. I didn’t see the same degree of similarity across the Germanic languages, as it seemed German speakers would switch to English to interact with service personnel, rather than attempting Flemish.

All of these snapshots give examples of how multilingualism is far more complicated than most people generally assume. There aren’t bounded spaces for using specific languages, and there aren’t even clear boundaries on how languages are divided from each other within interactions. Languages and multilingualism are made up of how they’re used, and people are endlessly fascinating in how they do that.

Language Change, Racism, and White Ideologies

*Content note: This post is explicitly about language that some consider racist, and it’s extremely difficult to talk about that language without using the terms themselves. While I will endeavor to avoid some of the slurs when I can make my point without them, some will end up being used.

A week or so ago, a friend linked this post on social media. It’s a common type of post, really – here are some words you might be saying that actually maybe you should think about *not* saying, because racist. And as happens in many instances when this type of point is raised, some (generally white) people respond with some questions about whether all of these terms really are, in fact, racist. As I’ve observed the way these conversations happen, I notice two types of arguments that are raised:

  • Look, this term wasn’t originally intended to be offensive. Here’s an etymological dictionary that says it meant something innocuous. Therefore, it’s not racist.
  • But…language changes, doesn’t it? So just because this term originates as a racist insult, does that still matter if we no longer know about that original association?

If you noticed that these are inherently contradictory, ten points for you! They are, of course, not applied to the same terms, nor are they necessarily arguments used by the same people. But it is worth comparing and contrasting the ideas, assumptions, and beliefs about how meaning works that are underlying each of them.

The first comes up a lot in relation to the controversy surrounding the Washington NFL team name. This NPR article does a nice job outlining the point in detail. The work of linguist/historian Ives Goddard is the authoritative reference point invoked in these, and

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Source website: Indian Country Media Network (image uncredited)

as that article outlines, it is possible to conclude that indeed, the word was not a hateful slur from its origin. There is, however, an alternative possible origin story for this word, which is indeed very offensive and violent, and which is cited by many Indigenous people as what they were taught about the word’s origin. It’s worth recognizing how this works as yet another example where Western academic knowledge is prioritized over Indigenous knowledge, but at the same time, I want to make the case that even if the benign story is the accurate one, using that as justification to keep the name and logo is still racist.

A very similar type of argument (complete with another etymological trace done by Goddard himself) is outlined in Jane Hill’s fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, where she refers to this as a “baptismal ideology”. The idea is that the most authoritative definition of a word is found in its original meaning, and it’s one we use in a number of different contexts beyond debates about racism. In academics, for example, we often explicitly try to return to the original coinage of a term in order to ensure that we aren’t relying on misinterpretations or a kind of “broken telephone” effect. In addition to the weight of the origin, this argument treats linguists like Goddard as authorities not just about the history of certain forms of language, but about the actual meaning of particular words (to my knowledge, Goddard has never commented on these ways of deploying his name in support of the continued use of these words). This is rooted in assumptions not only about etymology, but about authority, in establishing meaning.

 

The opposite comes up with respect to words like “gyp”, meaning “to short change, rip off”. As the article linked above notes, this is derived from the word “gypsy”, which is itself a slur applied to Roma people (who remain a highly marginalized group of people living primarily in Europe). That meaning is, to a degree, opaque at this point, so the argument goes – if the vast majority of people using a term are not only not trying to be offensive, they’re not even aware that there is a semantic connection to this other word, has the meaning drifted enough from its source that we don’t have to call it racist anymore? This perspective is rooted in the (correct) notion that language changes, and places authority over what a word “really” means in the intentions and knowledge of the speakers who use it.

What is important about this argument, to me, isn’t to decide which of these two views is more “correct” than the other. Both contain some elements of truth, in a historical as well as a broad theoretical sense. Both also contain some ideological bases that assume meaning works in specific and limited types of ways. The overall picture of how meaning does work, especially in regard to heated and complex areas like linguistic racism and what constitutes a ‘slur’, is far more complicated than either of these positions can singledhandedly capture. As someone who is very much invested in expanding people’s acceptance of language change (because refusal to allow it to change is so often a tool used by the privileged to put down those most likely to change it), I will admit I wrestled for a while with what was wrong with the second one. And then I saw it – the position used changes depending on what is the most efficient ideological approach to allowing dominant folks to feel okay about using terms that are, at best, problematic (and at worst, overtly racist). Though they are, on their face, opposite to each other, they work to accomplish the same task. That task, at its core, is about the maintenance of privilege.

Slurs – whether racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other mode of oppression – are particularly potent forms of language. Because their meaning and the weight different connotations carry within them is subject to such constant commentary and debate, these meanings are enhanced – we don’t just hear them when they are used, we hear them when they are discussed, and analyzed, and discussed again (like I am doing right here, yes). To an extent, this is why the negative meaning is almost always going to outweigh any neutral version. At the same time, the very fact that such heated debates emerge whenever people point out that specific words are hurtful or upsetting to them illustrates how hard privileged people work to protect their privilege. The loss of a few (or even a lot of) words from my repertoire doesn’t really hinder my communicative creativity all that much – it limits me verbally about to the same degree that not being allowed to hit people limits my range of acceptable arm motions. The fact that we strive for ideologies of maximal offensiveness allowed is yet another ugly feature of a structurally racist society.

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.

 

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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.