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Clues to the future in how people talk

This video has been dubbed so that Trump is speaking with a British accent. His words are the same. How many fans would Trump have if he actually talked like this?

We Americans believe that the British are excessively judgmental about how people talk (and they are). But not only are we Americans just as judgmental, some linguists say that Americans are even more judgmental than the British. Does how people talk affect our politics far more than we realize? Does it shed some light on who will prosper and who will not?

Our reactions to how people talk are largely unconscious. But, as we listen to someone talk, we are rapidly making judgments about how smart they are, how nice they are, how rich or poor they are, how educated they are, and whether they are, or are not, like us. If the way people talk marks them as a member of an out-group, then we apply the stereotypes that we associate with that out-group.

Let’s listen to the Trump supporters in the video below. I don’t think many Trump supporters read this blog. But if they did, they’d recognize the people in the video as members of their own in-group, just like everyone else at a Trump rally. Those of us who despise Trump, however, will have very different responses. We will realize — quite correctly — that the people in the video are not very smart, not very nice, not very rich, not very well educated, and not like us:

After you watch these two videos, it’s easy to see that Trump supporters like Trump because of how he talks to them. Trump comes across as just as stupid, just as mean, just as hardscrabble, and just as ignorant as they are. Thus they see Trump as one of them. Nothing else matters to them, because they don’t know and don’t care what it actually takes to manage and govern a world as complicated as the world we live in. Because they’re enraged and confused, cruelty toward out-groups seems to be their only domestic policy, their only foreign policy, and their only economic policy.

Unfortunately for Trump supporters, their ignorance makes them easy to deceive. Trump is not like them. Trump is a rich guy from New York City whose social set is the global oligarchy, an oligarchy all about money and power and that lives on the shady side of law and ethics. Trump is deceiving and exploiting his supporters for the benefit of people who are like Trump. Trump’s narcissism feeds on their adulation. In return, Trump flatters them with his attention. They believe that someone is finally speaking up for them. He assures them that they will be great again. But that is not going to happen. Trump is, if anything, expediting their obsolescence by convincing them that they don’t have to change, or learn, or be nice, or educate their children, and that it’s the rest of the world that is the problem.

After the catastrophic election of 2016, many liberals were quick to blame themselves. If only we had reached out to them! We must engage them and empathize with them! That is a delusion. Trump supporters are too far gone for liberal reaching-out, because liberals are a demonized out-group. As they see it, only one of them can save them. Trump is quite literally seen as the answer to their prayers.

But back to language. It’s a shame that linguists have had so little to say about the culture war now raging in America, because linguists have a long, long memory, for cultures as well as for languages. Most people who write about American politics invoke American history, and there they stop. But no matter how much one knows about American history, I suspect that American history is a shallow source for understanding this culture war. To my lights, the part of American history most relevant to today’s culture war is not Jefferson vs. Hamilton but the displacement of native Americans and the loss of native American culture.

Linguists have a lot to say about what occurs when one language (or culture) replaces another. It’s always complicated, but the factors tend to be similar, whether the cultural replacement occurred 5,000 years ago (as when the Indo-European languages and cultures became dominant in Europe and parts of Asia), or 2,000 years ago, as when Latin took over in western Europe. (We need to keep in mind that, though English is a Germanic language, about 60 percent of English words derive from Latin.) Among those factors are technology (going all the way back to the wheel), migration, and the kind of economic power that comes from trading, or from political or economic exploitation.

At the level of causes that can be keenly felt by every human individual, there are two factors that are pretty much always involved in cultural displacement: prestige, and its opposite, stigma.

In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, a book about how Indo-European languages swept over Europe during the bronze and iron ages, David Anthony writes:

The pre-Indo-European languages of Europe were abandoned because they were linked to membership in social groups that became stigmatized. How that process of stigmatization happened is a fascinating question, and the possibilities are much more varied than just invasion and conquest…. Negative evaluations associated with the dying language lead to a descending series of reclassifications by succeeding generations, until no one wants to speak like Grandpa anymore. Language shift and the stigmatization of old identities go hand in hand. [p. 340, sentence order inverted for emphasis]


Usually language shift flows in the direction of paramount prestige and power. [p. 341]

As the world relentlessly globalizes (whether for good or for ill), something remarkable is happening with language. It is very rapid, because it has happened in our lifetimes. English is becoming the global lingua franca. Millions of people are learning English. I did not realize until I was Googling for this post that more people today speak English as a second language (more than 1 billion) than speak English as their first language (less than 400 million). Whether as a first or second language, to speak English today (as long as your accent is not stigmatized) is a matter of great prestige.

In the American culture war, what we have is not language displacement but culture displacement, driven by the usual factors — technology, economics, migration, and prestige vs. stigma. Trump’s supporters speak English, but many or most of them speak stigmatized dialects of English. When Trump speaks to his supporters, he speaks to them in a stigmatized dialect — a New York working-class dialect.

In a piece in the Washington Post, “Donald Trump’s accent, explained,” a linguist is quoted: “He wants to sound macho. As part of his whole tough-guy persona, he adopts almost a working-class style of speech.”

I lamented above that linguists haven’t had more to say about American politics and the American culture war. But I would mention two papers by linguists that are relevant:

Talking Donald Trump: A sociolinguistic study, by Jennifer Scalfani

Silencing nonstandard speakers: A content analysis of accent portrayals on American primetime television, by four linguists

What I’m arguing here is that what we are living through is not just a culture war but actually is the rage and death throes of a doomed culture — white, rural, Christian America. At the risk of making it sound facile, I’d have to say that their doom is obvious. They lack the skills, the knowledge, the intelligence, and even the will to adapt to a changing world. They are stigmatized. The world looks down on them, and they know it. Almost all of the social goods required for success and expansion in today’s world belong to the other side. As for the rage of rural white America, that is easy to understand, because, in their lifetimes, they have seen a reversal of prestige vs. stigma, aggravated by economic humiliation. In the glory days of white rural America, black people and gay people were stigmatized. White rural churchgoers had prestige. Now it is the other way around, which is why these changes seem like the end of the world and the work of the devil to them.

Given that Trump supporters do speak English, it would be possible for them to save themselves. They could, through education, better information, better politics, and improvement in their language skills, unload some of the stigma and work to adapt. Many of their children will do that. But the older ones won’t. As they slide into minority status, they could join a coalition, as other minorities do. But they won’t do that either. Part of what Trump and the Republican Party is teaching them is not to join a coalition of, say, working class minorities. White, rural, working-class America has everything in common with black (or Hispanic), rural, working-class America. But the Republican Party has cleverly assured that today’s older Republicans will never, even if it would make them less poor and get them medical care, join a coalition that isn’t all white and waving the Christian flag. The 2016 election, I believe, is the last national election that the Republican Party will ever be able to win, unless it completely re-invents itself. Republicans lost the popular vote. Only by lying, cheating, and relying on Russian help could they pull it off. That won’t happen again. We’re onto them.

I have another suspicion here about what may be going on in the longer scheme of things. The rotting away of white, rural, Christian America is probably just an ordinary, localized event, if you look at it from a global perspective with a timeline of 100 years or so. Theirs is not the only culture that is is dying or that has recently died. But from a 2,000-year perspective, this may also be the last stand of Christian true believers. If the test of true belief is the willingness to go to war with the infidels, then only white, rural, evangelical and fundamentalist Americans are still standing. Europe, and the Catholic church, passed that point long ago. In not too many more years, good-byes may be in order not only for white, rural, Christian Americans, but also for true-believing Christianity.

What do we owe Trump supporters? We owe them what everyone is owed: equal justice, equal rights, equal opportunity, and all the goods that go with a decent society, including public education, medical care, jobs, retirement, and self-respect. Those are the very things that they would deny to others.

I am not a linguist, nor a sociologist, nor a political scientist, nor a historian (though I can read). But I do know these people. Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and the church have brought out the very worst in them. Even if it had been otherwise, and if the authority they crave had brought out the best in them, I believe they still would remain in decline, because they are unfit for a changing world and cannot adapt, as a consequence of their own failings. There ought to be a word for it, because it’s something I’ve seen over and over in how dysfunctional people live their lives. They cling, as though for dear life, to the very thing that is pulling them down.

One Comment

  1. James M wrote:

    David, you’re absolutely spot on with your assessment. I have maintained since the Bush 2 “election” that Americans- the subset you describe – is seduced by what I call the “Rambo effect” which is exactly what you describe. Extremism in any arena is bad; an interesting corollary would be to ask for a linguistic analysis of, say for example, middle Eastern political discourse. I thought it was a sad day in America when I read today about the Governor of Texas signing a bill to protect homophobes when basic rights for LGBTQ citizens aren’t even protected. Frankly, the last gasp of the Rambo lovers can’t come soon enough for my own satisfaction.

    Thursday, July 25, 2019 at 2:23 am | Permalink

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