What are Donald Trump’s garbled, rambling, grammar-school level speeches actually saying? Linguistics experts attempt to explain.
There is something about the way Donald Trump speaks that makes many people want to listen. He’s made a number of discredited claims, spewed divisive rhetoric, and gone so far as to publicly suggest someone should shoot Hillary Clinton.
Yet his words have inspired some 40 percent of voters to stand behind him. Regardless of how frequently he is ridiculed, it’s impossible to deny Trump’s gibberish will remain a defining element of politics in America.
“Looking at Trump from the outside of America is fascinating,” Simon Raybould, a public speaking trainer and author from England, told ATI. “He’s saying — or rather not quite saying — what people feel they need to hear. It’s resonating with a sense of alienation, of frustration, and of anger. In many ways, Trump isn’t the problem — he’s a symptom.”
Whether you agree with Trump or not, his speaking methodology helps reveal just what’s making so many Americans so angry — and makes for an interesting linguistic case study.
The Power Of Positive Ambiguity
Trump only lightly touches on specifics when making a speech or answering questions about policy.
“When we look at word-for-word transcripts of what he says,” Raybould said, “it doesn’t actually make sense a lot of the time. Much of what he says is so grammatically unsound it doesn’t actually mean anything in any literal sense.”
In that lack of structure, however, lies Trump’s power. People can find their own meaning in Trump’s words, and if something he says is deemed too offensive, as in the aforementioned Clinton shooting comment, he simply can claim his words were misconstrued.
Furthermore, Trump uses simple grammatical structures to get his point across. An analysis of political language done by Elliot Schumacher and Maxine Eskenazi from Carnegie Mellon University found Trump uses grammar at the same level as a fifth grader. For comparison, Ronald Reagan used grammar equivalent to a ninth grade level and Barack Obama uses grammar equivalent to an eighth grade level.
Trump also steers toward the simple when it comes to word choice and sentence configuration.
“For example, we would expect to see the word ‘win’ fairly frequently in third grade documents, while the word ‘successful’ would be more frequent in, say, seventh grade documents,” Schumacher and Eskenazi write. “We would not see dependent clauses very often at the second grade level, whereas they would be quite frequent at the seventh grade level.”
Ultimately, considering both grammar and language, the media feed off Trump’s positive ambiguity because there is no set way to interpret his statements.
“He’s almost guaranteed headlines, as people and the media argue back and forth about whether he was right or wrong, but critically, it means he can simply deny any interpretation of what he’s said that isn’t convenient to him in the future,” said Raybould.
“But because retractions don’t get coverage, and people have heard what they want to hear, he gets the best of all worlds — popular appeal, media coverage, and no responsibility.”
Content Versus Communication Tactics
Trump’s sentence construction most closely resembles word salad. For example, a single run-on sentence from a speech in South Carolina (above) started out about nuclear weapons, moved to Trump’s uncle, then to media bias, then to his schooling, then to women’s rights, then to Muslim countries, then to the negotiating tactics of Persians, until finally getting to the point about the nuclear deal with Iran.
“This is not only an anomaly stylistically but substantively, in that, just as he feels absolutely no obligation to finish a thought or complete a sentence, he also feels no obligation to actually tell you what he’s going to do in terms of policy,” Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, told Yahoo.
Akin to his use of nebulous sentence constructions, Trump also uses metaphors as facts.
“Claiming that Obama founded ISIS is clearly nonsense on a literal level, but it sounds strong and makes a very powerful, emotionally resonant impact,” Raybould said.
“For people who are anti-Obama, it means they’re ready to believe the detail of the metaphor, that it’s actually Obama’s policies which created the conditions for ISIS to grow. Most, of course, won’t bother with that level of analysis — instead they’ll just respond to the emotional power of the statement.”
The Power Of Repetition
Or, as Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Yahoo: Trump gives people the impression “he’s confident and in control of knowledge and ideas and attitudes.”
Of course, every politician and effective speaker uses repetition. Trump just uses it differently.
“Trump never uses ‘filled pauses’ like ‘uh’ or ‘um’ and rarely has silent pauses of greater than minimal length,” said Liberman. “I’d speculate at some point many years ago, he decided ‘ums’ and uhs’ and dead air were bad things. He began practicing to avoid them, and he found repeating or paraphrasing medium-sized chunks was a useful method.”
Historically, Trump Isn’t Alone
With that label, Trump joins some powerful political players of yore. Senator Joe McCarthy, the man who led the communist witch hunts in the 1950s, and Alabama Governor George Wallace, who made a name for himself by proclaiming “segregation now, segregation forever” were called demagogues as well.
And Trump’s use of language leads to clear comparisons to infamous politicians like these who have used fear and nationalism to rise to power.
“I’ll leave it to others to make the obvious comparison to Hitler,” Raybould said.
Or, to put it just as bluntly:
“His entire campaign is run like a demagogue’s — his language on division, his cult of personality, his manner of categorizing and maligning people with a broad brush,” Jennifer Mercieca, an American political discourse expert at Texas A&M, told The New York Times.
“If you’re an illegal immigrant, you’re a loser. If you’re captured in war, like John McCain, you’re a loser. If you have a disability, you’re a loser. It’s rhetoric like Wallace’s — it’s not a kind or generous rhetoric.”
Trump is far from a linguistic master, but he uses language in a way that works. It’s impossible to argue, however, that the power language Trump uses actually equates to leadership ability.
The Boston Globe, for example, analyzed Trump’s speech patterns in October of 2015 and found that he speaks at a fourth grade level.
In December of 2015, Evan Puschak, creator of The Nerdwriter video series, broke down a 220-word, one minute-long Trump answer (above) and found that 95 percent of Trump’s words were one or two syllables and just six words were three syllables or more (and three of the three-syllable words were “tremendous”).
Yet, despite that kind of content, the communication style has found an audience.
“As a professional speaker, we’re all taught it’s more critical to have content,” Raybould said. “But just having content without the means to communicate the content is also pointless. There’s no point in a book written in a language no one can read or which never gets taken out of the library, no matter how brilliant the words.”
“ … there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself — and the Russians, zero.”
When President Trump offered that response to a question at a press conference last week, it was the latest example of his tortured syntax, mid-thought changes of subject, and apparent trouble formulating complete sentences, let alone a coherent paragraph, in unscripted speech.
He was not always so linguistically challenged.
STAT reviewed decades of Trump’s on-air interviews and compared them to Q&A sessions since his inauguration. The differences are striking and unmistakable.
Research has shown that changes in speaking style can result from cognitive decline. STAT therefore asked experts in neurolinguistics and cognitive assessment, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists, to compare Trump’s speech from decades ago to that in 2017; they all agreed there had been a deterioration, and some said it could reflect changes in the health of Trump’s brain.
In interviews Trump gave in the 1980s and 1990s (with Tom Brokaw, David Letterman, Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Rose, and others), he spoke articulately, used sophisticated vocabulary, inserted dependent clauses into his sentences without losing his train of thought, and strung together sentences into a polished paragraph, which — and this is no mean feat — would have scanned just fine in print. This was so even when reporters asked tough questions about, for instance, his divorce, his brush with bankruptcy, and why he doesn’t build housing for working-class Americans.
Trump fluently peppered his answers with words and phrases such as “subsided,” “inclination,” “discredited,” “sparring session,” and “a certain innate intelligence.” He tossed off well-turned sentences such as, “It could have been a contentious route,” and, “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated.” He even offered thoughtful, articulate aphorisms: “If you get into what’s missing, you don’t appreciate what you have,” and, “Adversity is a very funny thing.”
Now, Trump’s vocabulary is simpler. He repeats himself over and over, and lurches from one subject to an unrelated one, as in this answer during an interview with the Associated Press last month:
“People want the border wall. My base definitely wants the border wall, my base really wants it — you’ve been to many of the rallies. OK, the thing they want more than anything is the wall. My base, which is a big base; I think my base is 45 percent. You know, it’s funny. The Democrats, they have a big advantage in the Electoral College. Big, big, big advantage. … The Electoral College is very difficult for a Republican to win, and I will tell you, the people want to see it. They want to see the wall.”
For decades, studies have found that deterioration in the fluency, complexity, and vocabulary level of spontaneous speech can indicate slipping brain function due to normal aging or neurodegenerative disease. STAT and the experts therefore considered only unscripted utterances, not planned speeches and statements, since only the former tap the neural networks that offer a window into brain function.
The experts noted clear changes from Trump’s unscripted answers 30 years ago to those in 2017, in some cases stark enough to raise questions about his brain health. They noted, however, that the same sort of linguistic decline can also reflect stress, frustration, anger, or just plain fatigue.
Ben Michaelis, a psychologist in New York City, performed cognitive assessments at the behest of the New York Supreme Court and criminal courts and taught the technique at a hospital and university.“There are clearly some changes in Trump as a speaker” since the 1980s, said Michaelis, who does not support Trump, including a “clear reduction in linguistic sophistication over time,” with “simpler word choices and sentence structure. … In fairness to Trump, he’s 70, so some decline in his cognitive functioning over time would be expected.”
Some sentences, or partial sentences, would, if written, make a second-grade teacher despair. “We’ll do some questions, unless you have enough questions,” Trump told a February press conference. And last week, he told NBC’s Lester Holt, “When I did this now I said, I probably, maybe will confuse people, maybe I’ll expand that, you know, lengthen the time because it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago.”
Other sentences are missing words. Again, from the AP: “If they don’t treat fairly, I am terminating NAFTA,” and, “I don’t support or unsupport” — leaving out a “me” in the first and an “it” (or more specific noun) in the second. Other sentences simply don’t track: “From the time I took office til now, you know, it’s a very exact thing. It’s not like generalities.”
There are numerous contrasting examples from decades ago, including this — with sophisticated grammar and syntax, and a coherent paragraph-length chain of thought — from a 1992 Charlie Rose interview: “Ross Perot, he made some monumental mistakes. Had he not dropped out of the election, had he not made the gaffes about the watch dogs and the guard dogs, if he didn’t have three or four bad days — and they were real bad days — he could have conceivably won this crazy election.”
The change in linguistic facility could be strategic; maybe Trump thinks his supporters like to hear him speak simply and with more passion than proper syntax. “He may be using it as a strategy to appeal to certain types of people,” said Michaelis. But linguistic decline is also obvious in two interviews with David Letterman, in 1988 and 2013, presumably with much the same kind of audience. In the first, Trump threw around words such as “aesthetically” and “precarious,” and used long, complex sentences. In the second, he used simpler speech patterns, few polysyllabic words, and noticeably more fillers such as “uh” and “I mean.”
The reason linguistic and cognitive decline often go hand in hand, studies show, is that fluency reflects the performance of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the seat of higher-order cognitive functions such as working memory, judgment, understanding, and planning, as well as the temporal lobe, which searches for and retrieves the right words from memory. Neurologists therefore use tests of verbal fluency, and especially how it has changed over time, to assess cognitive status.
Those tests ask, for instance, how many words beginning with W a patient can list, and how many breeds of dogs he can name, rather than have patients speak spontaneously. The latter “is too hard to score,” said neuropsychologist Sterling Johnson, of the University of Wisconsin, who studies brain function in Alzheimer’s disease. “But everyday speech is definitely a way of measuring cognitive decline. If people are noticing [a change in Trump’s language agility], that’s meaningful.”
Although neither Johnson nor other experts STAT consulted said the apparent loss of linguistic fluency was unambiguous evidence of mental decline, most thought something was going on.
John Montgomery, a psychologist in New York City and adjunct professor at New York University, said “it’s hard to say definitively without rigorous testing” of Trump’s speaking patterns, “but I think it’s pretty safe to say that Trump has had significant cognitive decline over the years.”
No one observing Trump from afar, though, can tell whether that’s “an indication of dementia, of normal cognitive decline that many people experience as they age, or whether it’s due to other factors” such as stress and emotional upheaval, said Montgomery, who is not a Trump supporter.
Even a Trump supporter saw and heard striking differences between interviews from the 1980s and 1990s and those of 2017, however. “I can see what people are responding to,” said Dr. Robert Pyles, a psychiatrist in suburban Boston. He heard “a difference in tone and pace. … What I did not detect was any gaps in mentation or meaning. I don’t see any clear evidence of neurological or cognitive dysfunction.”
Johnson cautioned that language can deteriorate for other reasons. “His language difficulties could be due to the immense pressure he’s under, or to annoyance that things aren’t going right and that there are all these scandals,” he said. “It could also be due to a neurodegenerative disease or the normal cognitive decline that comes with aging.” Trump is 71.
Northwestern University psychology professor Dan McAdams, a critic of Trump who inferred his psychological makeup from his public behavior, said any cognitive decline in the president might reflect normal aging and not dementia. “Research shows that virtually nobody is as sharp at age 70 as they were at age 40,” he said. “A wide range of cognitive functions, including verbal fluency, begin to decline long before we hit retirement age. So, no surprise here.”
Researchers have used neurolinguistics analysis of past presidents to detect, retrospectively, early Alzheimer’s disease. In a famous 2015 study, scientists at Arizona State University evaluated how Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush spoke at their news conferences. Reagan’s speech was riddled with indefinite nouns (something, anything), “low imageability” verbs (have, go, get), incomplete sentences, limited vocabulary, simple grammar, and fillers (well, basically, um, ah, so) — all characteristic of cognitive problems. That suggested Reagan’s brain was slipping just a few years into his 1981-1989 tenure; that decline continued. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994. Bush showed no linguistic deterioration; he remained mentally sharp throughout his 1989-1993 tenure and beyond.