I am referring to our current president, Mr Donald Trump, elected in 2016 and therefore in office for four more years. During his campaign tour he regularly said things that were misunderstood, misinterpreted and, even occasionally, understood. He has continued with this ability. However, as a linguist, I have wondered: How does one analyze what he is saying?

Although words are typically simple with Trump, he claims to have a “great education”. But then everything about Trump is, in his view, “great”. Linguists note that he talks with words like  “many, many” and “very, very” and is super-duper at non sequiturs. I looked on-line to see what some analysts and interpreters were saying about his speaking style. Here are a few reflections on Trump’s messages:

  • “His trademark talk is full of rambling, aside-filled bursts of simple but definitive words.” He mirrors the tactics of advertisers, going with emotion for persuasion, rather than rationality. (David Beaver, linguist at the UT Austin)
  • “this kind of pushes the limits of linguistic analysis.” (Historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Calvin College)
  • “With Trump, the mold of focus-group-tested, carefully-selected words was broken.” (Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania)
  • “There is a lot of repetition, building up patterns of trust with the listener, repetition of ‘you know,’” (Paul Brien, senior lecture at the University of Westminster in England)
  • A penchant for superlatives including ‘biggest,’ ‘toughest,’ and ‘strongest’. (Eric Acton, linguist at Eastern Michigan University)
  • Speeches can be pooled into groups: spontaneous, scripted and carefully-delivered addresses, and tweets. (John Baugh, linguist at Washington University)
  • “They use unusual speech patterns and ungrammatical phrases and long pauses—and it kind of pulls you in.” (Richard Wilson, professor of anthropology and law, UConn School of Law)
  • “Trump’s prepared speeches are pedestrian” in which he uses “plain style” and this provides simple answers for people, like “build a wall,” “buy American”. (Edward Schiappa, professor of rhetoric and media at MIT)
  • Trump is “a lifelong salesman, has a huckster’s knack for selling a feeling even if the ideas that in fact underscore it are spurious, racist or just plain incomprehensible.” (Evan Puschak on Nerdwriter)
  • “Trump’s favorite word, however, [compared to Jeb Bush] is “I.” His fourth-favorite word is “Trump.” Eight out of his 13 favorite words are one syllable, and the two syllable words are simple — “very,” “China,” and “money.” His only three-syllable favorite word is “Mexico.” (Mark Yoffe Liberman, professor of linguistics, University of Pennsylvania).
  • “The impression from people I talk to just casually is that he comes off as incoherent, that you can’t really grasp the core of what he’s saying….A lot of that has to do with the way he opens his answers.” (Jennifer Sclafani, associate professor at Georgetown University) According to Sclafani, Trump is also a poor story teller, for example:
  • “Trump’s story begins out of nowhere: ‘Border Patrol. I was at the Border last week,’ he says. There’s no orientation, no setting the scene. He then says, ‘The people that I deal with,’ changing from past to present tense. He mentions no specific conversation, no specific person. He ends with, ‘and that’s what’s happening whether you like it or not,’ totally removed from the narrative.” (ibid)
  • “ Trump exploits prefaces like “people are saying” and “I’ve heard many times” to burnish his credibility. Yet the sheer number of not semantically meaningful words he uses implies something else: that he is too distracted by the pleasure and theater of vocalizing to deliver any actual substance.” (George Lakoff, cognitive linguist)
  • “…scattered thoughts, a short span of attention, and a lack of intellectual discipline and analytical skills. But to me, that absence of self-command suggests more than mere flightiness. Trump’s narcissism has convinced him that he doesn’t needto finish the statement, even if he could (which he can’t).” (Geoffrey Pullum, language Specialist, University of Edinburgh)

Given these largely, almost completely, negative remarks about Trump, is there any way to know exactly what he means? And how should we go about listening and viewing? Here are a few (perhaps tongue in cheek—but who knows?) suggestions:

  • Accept the fact that Trump can change his mind on anything at any time. Do not just “give him some slack” but allow him divergent views and slack at all times
  • Therefore, if you don’t like something Trump says today, realize that he may say the opposite tomorrow and wait for it
  • Enjoy his lack of prose and accept it as the street talk of the common man, including the common and seemingly necessary expletives
  • Be suspicious of words of more than three syllables and write them down—in particular note what he calls the heads of state in other countries
  • Allow him the freedom to mispronounce academic-sounding words or the names of countries he did not know existed until his aids told him
  • Like with an old puzzle, realize that some of the pieces may be missing and don’t spend much time looking for them
  • Focus on the color of his ties and his hair-do, instead of what he says
  • Be happy that, as an unknown civilian, he can’t sue you

[Feel free to add to the list]