MSNBC / YouTube Language Expert Donald Trump  s...
MSNBC / YouTube

If human communication was a symphony, Donald Trump would only be able to sputter a few tone deaf notes. A combination of self-assurance and utter ignorance is his main opus, with riffs of cocky vulgarity and casual cruelty interspersed as even George W. Bush noted the other day, although the formulation was not original to him. Trump’s inability to communicate as even a normal human being, let alone a head of state, was underscored this week with the condolence call debacle. Brian Williams interviewed linguistics professor John McWorter on the 11th Hour. McWhorter elaborated on Trump’s deficiency as a communicator.

Williams: “What is the linguistics definition of this president?”

McWhorter: “Donald Trump is unadorned. Linguistically, he is unadorned. This is the basics, this is what language was undoubtedly like when it first emerged among people who didn’t have writing and were first getting their verbal sea legs. This is where it started and so in that way as in so many others Donald Trump is an original.”

Williams: “That would mean that education and schooling has had no effect on his use of language. He’s quick to remind us that he went to the best schools.”

McWhorter: “And he learned nothing in them. He speaks like someone who has paid no attention to one of the goals of education, which is refine our natural, inborn proclivities of speech, which are great for casual circumstances, but he uses those same ways of speaking in what most of us used to consider formal and important circumstances.”

Williams: “I think in your line of work they call it a ‘tag’ when something is added at the end of a sentence. The tradition is that often he will tag a sentence with ‘believe me, believe me,’ an enforcer, something he thought was lacking in the original sentence.”

McWhorter: “Um, hmm. It’s that he’s reinforcing …what we’re always doing is checking to see that the other person understands what we’re saying, that they’re in the same boat that we are, so that’s what ‘you know’ is, that’s what ‘LOL’ is in texting, but once again, he’s not doing it in texting, he’s doing it in formal circumstances. What that means is that he never leaves the realm of the casual when he speaks, which is unlike — even in indigenous societies, where there is no such thing as reading or writing yet, there’s always a high way of talking and a low way of talking; the Chief just doesn’t get up and run his mouth. Ours does.

Williams: “There’s a friend of our broadcast, Eli Stoeckels, who works for the Wall Street Journal …and says about Donald Trump there are visual and audio ‘tells’ that he peppers his speech with, that if you know what’s coming, you know what’s coming. I want to run a montage of a Trump phrase, ‘People don’t know.’ In Eli Stoeckels’ reading of it, ‘People don’t know’ for Donald Trump means, ‘I just learned.’ Here’s the examples.”  [Williams’ montage comes up at 3:04 in this seven and a half minute tape.]

Trump: “France is America’s first and oldest ally. A lot of people don’t know that.”

Trump: “The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, ran his first campaign in 1832. Great president, most people don’t even know he was a Republican, right, does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

Trump: “People don’t know, don’t realize, we are an unbelievably divided country.”

Trump: “Now I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.”

McWhorter: “He has this need to be the alpha male. That business of ‘most people don’t know’ is coming from that same well, he’s the only one that’s always one step ahead. Frankly, I don’t find him linguistically challenged so much as somebody who’s just oddly adolescent, for somebody who’s a senior citizen.”

Williams: “What about his other favorites, ‘believe me’ or ‘more than we’ve ever seen before?’’

McWhorter: “Well, some of that, I’m sorry to say it, there are only so many thoughts [in Trump’s head] and so often he’s speaking and he runs out of new insights and so he covers it with things like ‘believe me’ or it can’t ever be that something is bad, it’s ‘very bad’ or ‘very very bad.’ Those are his equivalents of roughly ‘um’ or scratching his head. The content of what he’s saying is so much slimmer than the bulk, the bulkage of the verbiage that he spews out.”

Williams: “He’s 71 years old. …this is an age of instantaneous fact checking. He’s not used to his superlatives being fact checked in real time. Do you think he’s bumped up against that dynamic?”

McWhorter: He’s not going to change…he simply has no deodorant wearing Sunday best way of speaking and that includes that you have to have a more responsible sense of truth than when you’re just with your pals… He doesn’t understand when you’re president of the United States you can’t just talk…but there’s this other art that you’re supposed to master. He wasn’t interested in that other thing, say, in school.  This is somebody who was numb to the artful. He has a rather narcotic joy in dismissal and belittlement rather than building and decorating….he doesn’t understand that when you’re president you have to think about such things as what we might call ‘truth conditions.’

Williams: “Is what you’re describing the intersection between narcissism and linguistics?”

McWhorter: “I don’t think he’s insane, but clinically narcissistic and talking all the time — to us — in our houses, about serious things and that’s what’s so striking about listening to this person talk. What’s unfortunate is how much we’ve had to listen to it. But I don’t think we should be under any impression that it’s going to change, because we’re in an informal era. In a way, he’s a product of something that’s been going on since the mid’60’s…wearing suits and fedoras, even on hot summer days, thank God that’s gone. But something else that’s left is the sense that you put speech in its Sunday best. All of us nowadays at least fake it to an extent. But we could have predicted that somebody was going to come along who didn’t bother to do anything but talk rather than speak and could even become president ...I don’t think that Trump is going to be last in that regard, the oratorical regard. Hopefully the other things, but oratorically he’s the beginning of something new.”

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  1. Three year old children speak well, but in short sentences. By six years (first grade) most children are fluent in complex sentences and in sequential thinking. Even the ones who are slow in verbalizing understand and respond appropriately. What Trump shows is a deficit or lacuna in comprehension, which may be organic or the result of trauma.


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