Well, it actually happened. Donald J. Trump will be the 45th president of the U.S.A. Just before the election I heard a BBC podcast, The Verb, which describes itself as “cabaret of the word, featuring the best poetry, new writing and performance.” A recent episode posed the question: Are we really living in a Post Factual world? The first part looked at the language of Trump. The panellists were asked to name their favourite examples of Trumpspeak. Here’s what they came up with:
- His constant repetition of Wrong! during debates without the mediation of any actual facts.
- He would refer to people as weak or losers –or even better weak losers.
- I know words. I have all the best words.
Today I want to look at the idiolect of Donald Trump. No, idiolect does not mean the language of idiots. Wikipedia defines idiolect as “an individual’s distinctive and unique use of language, including speech. This unique usage encompasses vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.” No two individual speak the exact same language. We all pronounce words slightly differently, have different inflections in our voices, and choose different words to refer to the same thing. The internet is rich in sources analysing the words of the Donald.
What are the characteristics of Trump’s language? Braggadocio and hyperbole are always near the surface. Huge, tremendous, unbelievable, amazing, terrific and the best were all used to describe his particular vision of the world. The language website, yourdictionary.com has a slideshow Donald Trump’s 20 Most Frequently Used Words. They say that the words have been specially chosen to undermine the listener’s trust in government, the media, and politicians and the numbers and facts which they present. Here is a brief summary:
- It will change. We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning.
- (on the State Department) It is the level of stupidity that is incredible. I’m telling you, I used to use the word incompetent. Now I just call them stupid.
- All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak. Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.
- Show me someone without an ego, and I’ll show you a loser — having a healthy ego, or high opinion of yourself, is a real positive in life!
- I’m, like, a really smart person.
- Mike Tyson endorsed me. You know, all the tough guys endorse me. I like that. OK?
- (on stopping Muslim immigration to the US) Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses.
- The failing @nytimes is truly one of the worst newspapers. They knowingly write lies and never even call to fact check. Really bad people!
- I have had tremendous success.
- (on Obamacare) Repeal and replace with something terrific.
- Our country is out of control.
- Remember when I tore down the Bonwit Teller store on Fifth Ave.? The Times whined at me that I was tearing down a “stupendously luxurious mix of limestone, bronze, platinum and hammered aluminium,” but look what I built – something truly classy, Trump Tower
He has an informal style scattering his talk with conversational turn signals like ‘I mean,’ ‘OK?’ and ‘Can you believe that?’ His use of repetition is particularly effective. In this YouTube video, How Donald Trump Answers A Question?, Nerdwriter1 analyses Trump’s answer to one particular question on the Jimmy Kimmel talk show: Isn’t it un-American and wrong to discriminate against people based on their religion? His one-minute, 220-word answer gives an insight into Trumpspeak. Of these 222 words 78% contain one syllable and 17% have two syllables. There are just four words three syllables long and three of those are tremendous. Finally there are two words with more than three syllables. He couldn’t avoid California, because it is shorter than San Bernardino, where the shootings took place. And he doesn’t actually pronounce all of temporary.
He does not tend to finish his sentences. With all his going off on a tangent and digressions transcribing his words must have been a real challenge. Here is a classic example of his style from a speech he gave in Sun City, South Carolina, on July 21 2015:
“Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, 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.”
When it comes to understanding a person. It is often functional words such as pronouns, articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and conjunctions that tell us how speakers are connecting with their audiences. This is the idea behind James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns. Using a free corpus analysis software program, Katelyn Guichelaar and Kristin Du Mez analysed seven Trump speeches. With respect to Trump, what stands out is the frequency with which he references himself. Trump says I, me, or my 850 times in these seven speeches. He says I 700 times, me 94 times, my 56 times, mine 5 times, and myself 2 times out of the total 25,722 words in the corpus. What this all means is that 3.3% of his words are self-references, which is a remarkably high figure by the standards of any typical corpus. Clinton figure is 1.9%, and he was also considerable higher than all his Republican challengers in the primaries. Another feature of Trumpspeak is the way he refers to himself in the third person. For instance, “Nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump. My favourite example of this was a tweet during the primaries:
‘Missouri just confirmed a victory for Donald Trump. He actually gained votes in the recount and picks up an additional 12 delegates.
To his critics Donald Trump’s language is nonsense, word salad and Palinesque. His language is said to contain the vocabulary of a nine-year old. But this doesn’t bother Trump. He has an informal style. Winston Churchill he is not. But political discourse has become this way in the last fifty years. And there is no doubt that Trump has mastered this skill. He may have a tenuous relartionship with facts, but we are going to have to get used to him for at least another four years.