Photo by AP/REX/Shutterstock (9235097d) President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before leaving the White House, in Washington for a Thanksgiving trip to Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla Trump, Washington, USA - 21 Nov 2017

Since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent election catapulted him to even greater levels of attention than he had previously enjoyed, many many people have come to notice something distinctive about his speaking style – and, as you might expect, linguists have not been exempt from this in the slightest.

A Google search for trump linguistics gives articles with comments on the President’s language style from half a dozen different linguists on the first page alone. The contributors to linguistics blog Language Log can’t get enough of Trump, as a search of the site reveals (not all of those posts are about Trump’s own language use, but many of them are). There’s even a book about how Trump talks –Talking Donald Trump: A Sociolinguistic Study of Style, Metadiscourse, and Political Identity  by Dr. Jennifer Sclafani, published in August 2017.

So, what’s so remarkable about the way Trump speaks? Well, you can go away and read about it yourself from the links above, but here are a few of the more interesting things. Sclafani notes how Trump tends to make use of a casual tone, with “simple vocabulary and grammar”. His speech is typified by asides and unexpected switches of topic: who knows what’s going on with the following non sequitur?

They’ve won five wars where the armies that went against them froze to death. It’s pretty amazing. So, we’re having a good time. The economy is doing great.

Trump likes repetition and hyperbolic vocabulary, as shown in one interview where he mentions in quick succession “great chemistry with all of the leaders”, “amazing relationships”, “great relationships”, “great chemistry”.  On a similar note, Kristen Kobes Du Mez notes Trump’s liking of “verbal intensifiers” like “very very”,  “many many” and “super-duper”; Eric Acton points to his use of superlative adjectives: “biggest”, “strongest”, “toughest”.

He sometimes addresses himself (“Thanks Donald!”). He says things like “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job” when talking about somebody who’s dead – you’d usually expect to hear ”somebody who did an amazing job”.  Compared to previous US Presidents, he talks much more about “America” but much less about “freedom”. And who could fail to notice his frequent catch phrases, like “fake news”, “crooked Hillary” and “Sad!”?

I could go on. It’s fascinating that there’s so much to say about the language of just one individual. It just goes to show how rich and abundant the data that linguistics is based on is – that even one person can spark whole books’ worth of research and more.

But of course it’s not only Trump who has a unique speaking style. In fact, the way everybody speaks is a little (or a lot) different from everybody else. That’s why you can identify a friend speaking down the telephone, or with your back turned to them, or why certain actors and other public figures are so associated with their voices (James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, the Queen, David Attenborough). It’s why the science of forensic linguistics is able to use linguistic clues to solve crimes – though it can’t (yet) boast of 100% accuracy. Linguists call the idiosyncratic way of speaking that each of us has our “idiolect”. In a way, everybody speaks a different language – differing in the words we know and use, the styles of speaking we prefer, the exact grammatical rules we employ, or the way our speech sounds due to subtle differences in the shape of our mouths.

All this goes to show just how wonderful and diverse language is. All of us have our own unique way of speaking, and so much can be said about the speech even of just one person. There is just so much to investigate for linguists, and for anybody interested in language.

 

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