By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
The just concluded American presidential election didn’t excite me at all. That was why I didn’t write about it. But now that the election is over, I want to take some time to reflect on the effect the campaigns have had on English grammar and usage. I will start with Donald Trump.
Trump contorted the English language in more ways than any presidential candidate did. First, he was notorious for terrible, sometimes hilarious, misspellings on Twitter. After the Republican primary debates on February 26, 2016, for instance, Trump tweeted: “Wow, every poll said I won the debate last night. Great honer!” He had earlier tweeted the following: “Lying Ted Cruz and leightweight chocker Marco Rubio teamed up last night in a last ditch effort to stop our great movement. They failed!”
Trump became the object of ridicule. Senator Marco Rubio viciously excoriated him for his poor spelling the following day at a campaign rally. A headline in the website Mediaite.com captured it well. “Donald Trump Is Cluelessly and Hilariously Spelling Everything Wrong on Twitter Today,” it said. Even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary couldn’t help pillorying Trump. It sent out a tweet where it defined “honer” as “one that hones,” and adds: “leightweight: We have no. idea.” It also defined “chocker” in obvious dig at Trump’s clumsy attempt to spell “choker.” (By “honer,” Trump meant to write “honor.”)
But it’s Trump’s unusual turns of phrase and simplistic, repetitive vocabulary that have attracted the most attention from American grammarians. A famous study by Carnegie Mellon University concluded that he speaks at a Third Grade Level, that is, the level of an American Primary School kid.
English teachers have also torn apart his grammar. For instance, he mistook “temper” for “temperament” during one of his debates with Hillary Clinton. He also uttered the nonstandard “you was” during the debate. He said, "But you was totally out of control!" instead of the standard “But you were totally out of control!” Grammar pedants tore him to shreds.
And when he said, "They talk good around election" instead of “they speak well around election time,” many English teachers took to social media to say he had lost their votes. It is impossible to chronicle all the Trumpian solecisms in this article, but others that stood out include, "I pay tremendous numbers of taxes" and "Give economics to people."
Bad Grammar as Strategy of Condescension
Bad Grammar as Strategy of Condescension
But as a rhetorician, I know Trump's mangled, dialectal English isn't necessarily a product of insufficient mastery of the language. It was a deliberate rhetorical strategy designed to establish identification with the lower end of the American social stratum that constitutes the "base" of the Republican Party. Poor, rural, uneducated white Americans who form the bulk of Trump’s support base speak the kind of regional, nonstandard English Trump spoke on the campaign trail.
In his book Language and Symbolic Power, French theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls this "strategy of condescension." Bourdieu didn't mean "condescension" in the everyday sense of the word as disdain for one’s social inferiors; he meant the ability to negotiate and seamlessly traverse several "linguistic markets," as he called it. He said this ability invests elites with immense social and cultural capital. As Peter Haney puts it, strategies of condescension occur "when someone at the top of a social hierarchy adopts the speech or style of those at the bottom. With such a move, the dominant actor seeks to profit from the inequality that he or she ostensibly negates."
George Bush used it to maximum effect. People still remember him as the former US president who could barely string together grammatically correct sentences in English, who spoke with a Texan drawl. But Bush is the scion of "old money" who went to elite prep schools and grew up mostly in America’s northeast. If he wanted to sound "polished" and "cultivated," he could, but he would risk calling attention to his privilege and thereby alienating people he wanted to appeal to. Scholars actually systematically compared his speeches before he became governor of Texas and after he became governor of Texas and found radical differences in his grammar, enunciation, and speech mannerisms. Before he became governor of Texas, he spoke like a typical American northeaster. His grammar and usage were polished and educated.
That doesn't mean people at the upper end of the social scale don't innocently mangle the language. For instance, when Hillary Clinton recently characterized some Trump supporters as belonging to a "basket of deplorables," American English grammarians took her on; they said "deplorable" is an adjective, not a noun, and therefore can’t be pluralized as "deplorables" since only nouns are pluralized. But "deplorables" may well become mainstream in the coming years if enough people with social and cultural capital use it the same way Hillary used it. That's how language evolves.
In any case, the English language is full of examples of adjectives that became nouns. They are called nominalized adjectives. The word “greats” (meaning great people) comes to mind. It started out as an adjective.
In a February 3, 2013 column titled "How Political Elite Influence English Grammar and Vocabulary," I pointed out several examples of the changes in the lexis and grammar of the language that were instigated by political and cultural elites across the pond. When former US President Warren Harding first used the word "normalcy" instead of the then usual "normality," he was ridiculed. But "normalcy" is now mainstream.
As I pointed out in the article, “Even the Queen of England, the unofficial guardian of the English tongue, is given to occasional violation of the rules of her own language. In their book Longman Guide to English Usage, Professors Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut shared how the Queen misused the expression ‘due to’ and inadvertently caused the rule to be changed in favor of her misuse.
“In traditional grammar ‘due’ is an adjective, and when it is followed by the preposition ‘to’ it should be attached to a noun (example: the cancellation of the event was due to the rain). The use of ‘due to’ at the beginning of a sentence in the sense of ‘because of’ or ‘owing to’ was considered uneducated.
“But when the Queen of England, in a Speech from the Throne, said, ‘Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have been faced for some time with a serious shortage,’ this ‘uneducated’ usage gained respectability. It is no longer bad grammar.
“I once observed that this example shows the arbitrariness and unabashed elitism of (English) usage norms. But that’s only partly true. What is equally true is that research has shown that the Queen of England has lately been speaking like her subjects, leading the Daily Mail, UK’s second-biggest selling newspaper, to write in a recent story that ‘The Queen no longer speaks the Queen's English.’”
Unfortunately, only native English speakers get to have that much influence on the language, which is both unsurprising and invidious, given the status of English as a world language with more non-native speakers than native speakers. Creative deviations from the norm that emerge from non-native speakers are often condemned to marginality.
There are exceptions, though. Chinese English speakers in the US have made enduring contributions to the lexis and structure of the language in very fascinating ways. For instance, the expression "long time no see" came to English by way of Chinese English speakers in California.
As I pointed out in my book, Glocal English: The Changing Face and Forms of Nigerian English in a Global World, this ungrammatical but nonetheless fixed English expression, which is used as a salutation by people who have not seen each other for a long time, is a loan translation from Mandarin hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn, which literally means "very long time no see." It was initially derided as "broken" English in California, but because the expression filled a real lexical and idiomatic void in the language, it quickly spread to other parts of the US, then crossed the pond to the UK, and is now part of the repertoire of international English.
Expressions like "no-go area," "have a look-see," etc. were also Chinese broken English expressions that are now idiomatic in the language. (Check out my April 19, 2015 column titled "Popular Expressions English Borrowed from Other Languages" and my 4-part series titled "The African Origins of Common English Words").