This is a strange time for language.
More than ever before it seems the left and the right are unable to communicate in the same language without rancor or misunderstanding. Both sides of the political spectrum hopelessly talk past each other, all while using exactly the same words. How can this be? Don’t words just mean what they mean?
Rather than focusing on what is being said—on the issues, on policies, on concrete facts and figures—in this political climate, it seems how things are expressed has been pushed to the forefront of the debate.
It starts with the strange and rambling idiolect of President Donald Trump—which The Guardian describes as “redundant, formulaic, aggressive, “post-literate”—full of bland contradictions, polarizing generalizations, statements sometimes inconsistent with reality (and some, we assume, are good statements).
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
The Rhetoric of Repetition
The early days of the Trump presidency may not be off to the best start, but it’s safe to say social commentators are still fascinated by how and why Trump’s politically unpolished, chaotic stream of consciousness style of communication, regardless of actual content, has been so effective in swaying the hearts and minds of his supporters. These supporters aren’t all cut from the same cloth, they may not all care about the same issues as a unified bloc and may only be engaged in “personalized politics”, yet all apparently hear what it is they want to hear, and discard or disbelieve what they don’t (contradictions notwithstanding). At the same time, Trump’s detractors on either side of the political divide are hearing something frighteningly different. All with exactly the same words.
“I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
In an earlier, more fact-friendly age, Trump’s political career might have faced an untimely end for some of the wildly outrageous things he’s said. So it’s not just what he says, whether they contain “alternative facts” or not, but Trump’s idiosyncratic manner of speaking that’s key here. His deft use of meandering, casual, conversational cues, so ripe for all kinds of interpretations by all kinds of cultural groups, manages to convince many of his supporters of his authenticity. While some observers read Trump’s style as incomprehensible and unintelligible, some linguists, like George Lakoff, have found his discourse structures to be very deliberately composed—whether Trump is aware of it or not, his years as a salesman have cut his linguistic style in the common cloth of the deal, of selling to the people, whether tangible products, empty promises or suggestive ideas.
But for those who find Trump’s reductive rhetoric not only offensive, but a harbinger of a new, more fearful age, there’s the question of how to effectively combat this linguistic style that has normalized hostility and hatred, shifting the Overton window just that little bit more.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it. They’re tough. We have to be tough. it’s time we’re gonna be a little tough, folks. We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not gonna happen anymore.”
The Trump linguistic formula, especially on Twitter, is so basic that it lends itself easily to parodies and mockery, with some suggesting that the way to fight Trump’s controversial notions is to turn his words back against him. Others have suggested that that’s a linguistic trap—the very parodies that seek to undermine Trump by ridiculing his language also serve to repeat and circulate his concepts and his meanings widely. Within a properly framed context, Lakoff points out that cognitively speaking, the more expressions are repeated, the stronger those ideas are lodged in the circuitry of your brain. Advertisers know it well, so do salesmen. Repetition is key for framing and controlling language and public perception. And at least in the examples above, Donald Trump is often nothing if not repetitive.
Winning Linguistic Battles
But repetition by one person is not enough, even if that person is the president. Convince a whole group of people to dutifully repeat your words and your new meanings and half the linguistic battle is won. Whether it’s “nasty woman” or “deplorables”, how listeners interpret new words and new connotations has to do with their personal experience and who they identify with. For example, researchers have found that in-group self-labelling with a stigmatized term such as “queer” or “nigger” can go a long way towards developing a positive connotation and reappropriating ownership for those controversial slurs, whereas the same labelling by those outside the group naturally may do just the opposite. In the current linguistic battlefield, the same kind of reappropriation has been attempted for insults such as “nasty woman” and “deplorables” on a large, almost spontaneous scale. Members of sub cultures have a vested interest in collectively spreading more positive usages and reclaiming these stigmatized labels, and only they can do so authentically. This grassroots authenticity of the people can’t be bought—or can it?
Unlike in-group linguistic activism, governments and official organizations often find it difficult to legislate and control language change from the top down. But do it right, with a healthy sprinkling of outrage, and the hope is the media might just pick up and broadcast the message for you. This has been a successful strategy for the Republican party in the past.
Nevertheless, rapidly changing language to order isn’t so easy.
We often think semantic change usually happens slowly, politely letting every day speakers, the media, and then the standard language (as represented by dictionaries), catch up to new connotations and expressions. In this kind of linguistic peace time, dictionary makers might have to add a handful of emerging new words each year, before no doubt enjoying lazy summer afternoons in hammocks reading up on obscure etymologies. But today, languages are changing more rapidly than ever. The reality is most lexicographers are likely scrambling to keep up with all the neologisms and newly developed, most prominent meanings. We can point to the networked behavior of digital and social media as one of the driving factors, the “how” of rapid meaning changes. But why are there so many more new connotations for words?
If there is such a thing as a linguistic time of peace, is there a linguistic time of war?
A Linguistic Time of War
The fact is language does not change in steady ebbs and flows. Cultural and social forces can play a major role in the speed at which language changes. Some language scholars claim that language actually behaves differently during times of social upheaval and even war, according to linguist Donna Farina.
So as a society becomes increasingly unstable, it turns out this is when linguistic innovation happens more rapidly, possibly as speakers seek to explain, reclaim, dilute or degrade certain terms on the linguistic battlefield. Curiously, it may be that the increased work of frazzled dictionary makers could be considered a kind of canary in the coal mine for the stability and health of a society. Farina, in her study of emerging connotations and lexical change in Russian and Ukrainian during wartime, shows that this has been not an uncommon linguistic insight, since the turn of the 20th century. Historian Lidia Starodubtseva in 2015 (as translated by Farina) states:
Probably, in half a century of peaceful life, the Ukrainian and Russian languages have changed less than during only one year of war. […] What kind of transformation is language subjected to in time of war? Does language suffer its own “linguistic jerk” that causes an avalanche-like process of chaotic word formation […]? Why not consider that in the life of language there are “peaceful” periods of stability and quiet, and “warlike” periods when there is a revolutionary “explosion” in the lexical paradigm?
But it’s not just a matter of throwing a linguistic hand grenade into the media fray and see what explodes anymore. There are far more efficient ways of controlling the message. Starodubtseva discusses how the “wartime linguistic swerve” into semantic chaos works on three levels, in everyday experience, in the media, and before finally being validated in standard language. Though ordinary speakers may not have as much linguistic authority as a record of the standard language, they do have a convincing authenticity as part of a collective and can effect powerful shifts in meaning as a mobilized group.
Consider the relatively recent “swerves” in English with phrases such as “politically correct” and “snowflake”. “Politically correct” once more neutrally referred to being culturally sensitive, used by left wing groups, but now has widely acquired a negative, insulting connotation after repeated framing by right wing groups. Similarly, “snowflake” and associated phrases like “snowflake generation” are relatively young terms that nevertheless has shifted subtly in connotation a number of times. Throughout the early 2000s “snowflake” was frequently used to refer to entitled, (usually) young people who expected special treatment. At times internet commentators might even apply it to themselves to undercut criticism. But somehow, by the time “snowflake” had made its way to the mainstream in 2016, it had become a heavily politicized linguistic weapon wielded by “alt-right” groups and referred particularly to liberals who are accused of being too sensitive. The Guardian notes though, that “it’s clear that whatever impact “snowflake” may have had as an insult is in the process of being neutralised. In a remarkably speedy turnaround of its intended usage, the left have started to reclaim it, throwing it back at the people who were using it against them in the first place.” Attack and counter-attack.
To gain more direct control over propaganda without having to convince the masses, a less ethically-minded government might consider surreptitiously and with deliberate intent, manipulating the process of language change in their favor by engaging a paid army of seemingly regular people with multiple fake social media accounts to promote and repeat the right messages.
It’s been happening in Russia for a while, and it’s apparently an open secret that internet commenters are paid to spread pro-government propaganda to an unsuspecting public, right down to specific key words and phrases. As Starodubtseva states “Thanks to an entire production apparatus generating messages to order, and to the work of a large army of Internet “trolls,” the State’s messages are “thrust” into the consciousness of the mass culture”.
Disturbingly, according to the New York Times, this weaponized army of trolls may already be actively dabbling in American politics to destabilize a society already a bit unsteady on its legs. While the more savvy members of the public, in Russia or in the US, might be able to tell when opinions or commentary is coming from a paid shill or troll, for more credulous others, it may not be as easy to tell what’s fake from what’s true and this is part of a wider, worrisome problem. Even the very words you use can no longer be trusted and, in the ongoing language wars, could mean something different by tomorrow.