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Erica R. Hendry
Erica R. Hendry
President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech contained plenty of the empty adjectives and hyperbole for which he is known. But his use of language was also in some ways uncharacteristic. The focus was on “we” more than “I,” and his sentences contained more metaphors and complex sentence structure than a typical Trump speech.
We asked linguists and cultural historians about what Trump’s words say about his message — and how he’s evolved as a speaker since taking the Oval Office.
Trump’s language and tone were more “traditionally presidential” than in his previous speeches as a candidate and president, said linguist Jennifer Sclafani, an associate teaching professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of the book “Talking Donald Trump: A Sociolinguistic Study of Style, Metadiscourse, and Political Identity.” It’s the same Trump we saw in his address to Congress last February, said Sclafani, who has been studying the president’s language since he first announced his campaign in 2015.
Unlike his usual “unscripted conversational style, with simple, concrete, straightforward vocabulary and syntax,” Tuesday’s speech “contained more complex grammatical structures and more abstract and metaphoric language,” Sclafani said. In the opening lines, “he refers to a “tide of optimism … sweeping across our land.” “At a rally, or in remarks to the press, that would more likely be relayed as: ‘people love me,’” Sclafani said.
… but some hallmark features of Trump’s usual language — like his “ tendency to use emphatic, unmitigated language” — were still there. Sclafani said Trump referred to a “‘totally devastating hurricane,’” which wasn’t in the prepared remarks, “‘totally defending the second amendment”’ and “‘the disastrous Obamacare.’”
Mark Liberman, a distinguished professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a speech like the State of the Union, which the president delivered but didn’t necessarily write, these Trumpisms are the most easily noticeable deviations from his prepared remarks.
Two examples Liberman noted:
Remarks as prepared: America has also finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs, and our nation’s wealth.
As delivered: America has also finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs, and our wealth. Our nation has lost its wealth, and we’re getting it back so fast.
Remarks as prepared: This is all news Americans are unaccustomed to hearing — for many years, companies and jobs were only leaving us. But now they are coming back.
As delivered: This is all news Americans are totally unaccustomed to hearing — for many years, companies and jobs were only leaving us. But now they are roaring back, they are coming back they want to be where the action is. They want to be in the United States of America.
Like in Trump’s off-the-cuff, remarks, there was little filler. Throughout the debates, the election, and into his presidency, Trump avoided starting sentences with “well,” something many politicians use to avoid answering a question, Sclafani said. It’s “one of the more subtle linguistic strategies that he uses to construct his particular presidential persona as being very straight forward, like the candidate who tells it like it is and who isn’t going to beat around the bush,” she said. It’s his way of saying (without saying) “they’re all talk no action. I’m going to get the job done.”
Trump refrained from some of his trademark insults, but he used empty adjectives to both praise and criticize. Trump isn’t shy about thanking, or poking fun of, specific lawmakers or groups of people when he delivers speeches. But on Tuesday, he used pairs of similar adjectives to do so: the “great beautiful auto workers” of Detroit, the “wonderful incredible Americans” who are terminally ill and who he wants to give the right to try, Sclafani said. He also called drug prices “very very unfair.’” Sclafani said a linguist named Robin Lakoff coined this as “empty adjectives” because “they say more about the affective or emotional stance of the speaker” than of the subject.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a cultural historian at Calvin College who has done linguistic analysis, says this is “precisely the speech we should have expected” a year after a doom and gloom, “American carnage” inaugural address. “Now, one year out, he touts — with characteristic hyperbole — the ‘incredible progress’ and ‘extraordinary success” achieved under his watch,” Du Mez said.
Trump didn’t use any of his signature “discourse markers” — like his oft-repeated “believe me” — but did give audience cues. One of the president’s tendencies is to use discourse markers, phrases that don’t have a lot of meeting but set up the speech the speech that comes around it. In Trump’s case, he uses them to bracket or emphasize important points. “We saw that here with lines like “prices will come down. Watch.”
“‘Watch’ punctuates his point and invites applause in the same way that ‘believe me’ does in his other speeches,” Sclafani said.
“It’s an interesting trick because it’s a word that looks backward and forward at the same time. That is, it emphasizes what he just said, making viewers focus back on what they just heard, but in its role as a punctuating device, it [also] tells viewers ‘I’m done now, you can applaud.’”
Trump usually focuses on the “I,” but on Tuesday, the emphasis was all on the “we.” “While he does take personal credit for certain accomplishments, overall there was more of a focus on the ‘we,’”Sclafani says. This also helps “articulate the ‘unity’ theme that his address was advertised as emphasizing,” Sclafani said.
The president said “America” or “Americans” more than nearly any other phrase during his address — more than 80 times, as the ACLU and the Times-Picayune noted.
The New York Times Mark Landler, who covered Tuesday’s address, echoed that point on the podcast “The Daily” on Wednesday morning. “I think that [Trump adviser] Stephen Miller, who took the main hand in writing this speech, made a deliberate decision to pull the president out of the speech. This couldn’t be a speech about Trump because Trump himself is just too much of a lightning rod. So I think they very much tried to very much make it about a message embodied in other people,” Landler told host Michael Barbaro.
“With regard to the content of his speech, viewers are likely going to be divided on whether he accomplished this,” Sclafani added. “But on a structural level, his linguistic choices point to this theme.”
Erica R. Hendry is the managing editor for digital at PBS NewsHour.
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