Gareth Price is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Linguistics program at Duke. He has taught Introduction to Linguistics, courses in language policy, critical discourse analysis, and language in social media. He is sociolinguist and political sociologist. DPR sat down with him to talk about language use in the presidential debates this election season.
DPR: The first presidential debate on September 26th was the most-watched debate in American history, and more attention has arguably been devoted to the language use in the three debates this year than any other debate historically. What do you see as the biggest difference between the language that candidates have used this year and language in previous elections?
GP: I think that the big change is that there is the incivility of discourse and the fact that there are particular norms about politeness, about sticking to policy, but also more importantly not interrupting, and you know, being congenial. And I think those values have really slipped. I think that both sides have tended to go on the attack, and to some extent have become quite personal in their attacks as well. I think that the values that have constrained debates and constrained certain behaviours in debates seem to have gone. And that mirrors a bigger problem: a bigger lack of civility in discourse.
DPR: What has been the impact of the candidates’ body language this election season? How do you think that compares to the use of literal/verbal language?
GP: I think body language has always been important. But again, it’s one of those things that become more visible when they’re marked, when it becomes unusual. I think there’s probably been a general model of behaviour ever since you’ve had a visual element to the presidential debates, ever since they’ve been on TV, basically. I think what’s happened is that certainly Trump is not a polished politician by any stretch of the imagination. His body language is certainly the confident businessman, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an effective politician. So people notice that poise, that body language is unusual, and he gets called out for it. I think that in terms of Hillary’s body language, she’s had to contend with this very uncivil way that Trump has comported himself. And I think she’s had to work very hard not to make visible her own frustrations through her body language. I’m not sure she’s been entirely successful at that.
DPR: So do you think that there’s been such heavy focus from the media on the body language because it is especially marked on the candidates this season?
GP: Yes, I think that, again, things become more visible in their marked form, they become worthy of comment. If everybody’s behaviour falls into the expected model of how presidential candidates should behave in their body language, then there’s not much to comment on. In language in general, once certain norms, certain models are broken or breached, then it becomes worthy of talking about. Again, it’s like my phrase, isn’t it? Everything becomes more vivid in the absurd.
DPR: In your opinion, what was each candidate’s most distinctive linguistic feature throughout the debates? Was it recurring? What does it tell you about the candidates?
GP: For me, it was Trump’s interruptions. Although it’s long been established in sociolinguistic research that men interrupt women more on average in general terms, his were particularly noticeable. It made the debates feel like an unseemly bickering contest, rather than a debate as such. Clinton’s distinctive feature, again for me, was her excruciatingly mechanical delivery. Certainly, she was far more in command of the issues than Trump – who freewheeled everything and it showed – but rather than appearing polished, to me she sounded very canned, at least at certain points. What does it say about the candidates? In terms of Trump, it perhaps says he has a particularly misogynistic streak that makes him think he can disregard whatever women say; while I think this is likely, even taking the gender variable out of the equation, he simply isn’t a good listener. That’s one way to run a business empire, though it’s not necessarily the best and it certainly doesn’t translate well into political leadership. Clinton, I think, just isn’t a natural public speaker, and she’s admitted as such in various places. She’s a highly competent technocrat, but she isn’t ever going to be the dazzling speaker that Obama is and, all other aspects aside, this makes it difficult for her to energize the base with any grand vision. I’m not sure she actually has a grand vision, but I think she is doing more than simply mouthing platitudes, and sometimes that’s unfortunately how it comes across.
DPR: Trump has coined many phrases, like “Nasty woman” and “bad hombre.” The traditional media and social media have then sensationalized these phrases. Do you think Donald Trump’s catchphrase-y rhetoric alters his number of supporters?
GP: I think that short of murdering someone on live TV, there’s not very much he can do to shift his needle. The question here is not how many supporters he can attract – it’s whether or not he’s alienating his core base. He has not done much that has alienated his core base. Whereas anything that Clinton does risks, if not alienating that core base, but certainly risking them not turning out because of her popularity. So you’ve seen that the email scandal has really moved her needle. There’s virtually nothing that Trump could do. To talk about language specifically, catchphrases and slogans are manufactured by marketing geniuses, political operatives, advertising gurus. That’s been the nature of politics since it became a visual medium, and arguably even before, since you’ve had political advertising in general. What Trump does is that he just says things that stick like a joke does. When someone tells a joke, a good joke or a punch line, that joke will spread. It’s very difficult to find patient zero of a joke, to find where it came from, and I think Trump’s stuff is like that. It’s very real, it’s funny because it’s absurd in the context, it becomes memorable and it gets spread around. I think it sticks because of that absurdity. I think it’s effective because it’s not scripted in quite the same way and it doesn’t seem to move his poll needles very much at all. And I think partly because, like much of what the rest of Trump does, people perceive that as real, as everyday, and as the everyman. People perceive Trump to be “well, he’s a guy like us.” The other thing that I think is important is that he says things that people think but are no longer permitted to say in polite company. And there are a lot of people who say, “I don’t want political correctness, I don’t like political correctness, I should be free to say whatever I say.” Trump is out there insulting women, insulting racial minorities, insulting anyone else you could think of, and he is politically incorrect, but there’s a large amount of people who would be quite happy to vocalize those opinions in polite society and can feel themselves or perceive themselves to be constrained by different social norms, which they then call political correctness.
DPR: So would you say that Trump’s power lies in his rhetoric?
GP: I don’t think that his rhetoric would stand up to any kind of scrutiny in terms of being a textbook example of wonderful political oratory. If you want to look at wonderful political oratory, you look at Obama, you look at Kennedy to some extent, but Obama’s the most recent one. You wouldn’t even look to Clinton for wonderful political oratory. That’s Obama’s forte; he style-shifts and shifts in register, he’s very verbally dextrous, very verbally articulate. Trump, well first of all, how many people are sitting around reading Trump’s transcripts? Out of his core supporters, not many of them I shouldn’t think. I think if you do read the transcripts, they come across as anything but skilled oration. Again, I think it’s his presence and the fact that he doesn’t sound scripted and he doesn’t sound like a polished orator that is part of his appeal.
DPR: Would you say that the moderator’s language had any effect on the debates?
GP: The moderator’s language is always going to have some kind of effect. How the moderator frames a question is going to give rise to particular kinds of ways they approach and answer. With Clinton, she’s got more pre-prepared answers—she has a stock answer that will fit a bunch of different ways the same question can be framed. With Trump, he is probably more affected by that since he has to think off the top of his head and that’s really his style. And I think that he’s likely to react to the moderator’s language and how questions are framed in a particular kind of way. With that said, it’s difficult to say. You can’t experimentally determine this. You can’t have an experiment where you put Trump into a different room and have a different question asked of him. So it’s very difficult to empirically define what is exactly is going on. The other element there is that moderators themselves are bound by either their own ethical or journalistic standards, but they’re certainly meant to be impartial, so they do constrain themselves. Their language is never going to be as inflammatory as perhaps it could be. I think there is an effect, [but] I think it’s probably a smaller effect than what you might be able to measure.
DPR: Do you think social media has contributed to the attention paid to language this election season?
GP: Without a doubt. You know, the fact is that social media is entirely done through language, lots of verbal language, if not then semiotic effects of pictures and video and images, but often a combination between image and text is absolutely what’s been [driving the attention]. Also, the important thing to bear in mind is that using social media is an active process. It’s a much more form of active engagement with the media because you are actually writing or producing images or recirculating images. And so people are using language and they’re using primarily the written form. And people use language much more than they did. They’re more engaged in the process than simply passively watching television, or even simply passively reading the Internet as people did before Facebook and Twitter.
DPR: And it is because people are engaging in interactions over social media that’s contributing to this phenomenon?
GP: I think that with social media, we’re becoming a lot more of a language-focused society. We’re more aware of the language that we use than others use. I don’t think that’s the sole factor. I think Trump and Clinton, Trump in particular, he gives a lot of natural material to work with. But I do think that we’re more heightened. There’s much more text about than there ever was.
This interview has been edited and condensed.