Thursday, January 22, 2015

Linguistically Speaking

I didn’t listen to much of the State of the Union the other night. I can’t do that fairly, because the president’s voice sounds derisive and condescending, and I don’t hear what he says clearly enough because of the nonverbal negatives. I did hear parts, and anger bubbled up, so I turned to a book. And then I read the transcript later.
at 2015 SOTU, image found here
When you have the transcript, there are all kinds of details you can draw out, separate from meaning. People have pointed out for some time that Obama talks about himself pretty endlessly. Andrew Klavan suggested a drinking game while listening:
1.) Take a drink every time Obama uses the 1st person, singular pronoun.
2.) Drown.
Fortunately, I don’t drink. So, no damage done.
Anyway, I began to wonder, just how often does he refer to himself? How does that compare to earlier in his presidency (since people have brought it up enough that his speechwriters should be addressing it as a problem)? How does that compare to other presidential SOTU speeches?
So I’ve done some analysis, using the handy “find” feature of my word processor:
Obama SOTU 2015
Total words: 6550 (59 minutes at 110 wpm, without pauses for applause)
Total first-person singular pronouns: 98
Ratio: 1/67 words
For comparison, I looked at three years ago.
Obama SOTU 2012
Total words: 6963 (63 minutes)
Total first-person singular pronouns: 103
Ratio 1/68 words
So he upped the frequency a tad over three years ago, but probably not a statistically significant change. If he has speechwriters working on the problem, they’re not up to the job.
How does he compare to his predecessor? I randomly looked up 2003, which was a year before an election year as well.
Bush SOTU 2003
Total words: 5327 (48 minutes)
Total first-person singular pronouns: 43
Ratio: 1/124 words
Clearly Bush was less about himself—by about half. What about other presidents? Here’s Clinton, in the same year of his presidency as Obama is this year.
Clinton SOTU 1999
Total words: 7589 (69 minutes)
Total first-person singular pronouns: 116
Ratio: 1/65 words
Interesting. He spoke longer, and used first-person singular pronouns even more often than Obama. Yet we didn’t talk about it that much at the time.
How did Reagan do? I chose the 1987 SOTU, which is, again, the same length into the presidency as this year’s.
Reagan SOTU 1987
Total words: 3799 (35 minutes)
Total first-person singular pronouns: 60
Ratio: 1/63
So Reagan’s a lot less verbose, but he uses first-person pronouns just as much as Clinton, and slightly more often than Obama. Yet no one ever commented on it.
There must be something else that’s getting our attention than simply the use of the first-person pronoun. I started to see a difference as I skimmed through Bush’s sample address. Here are some of Bush’s uses:
·         “You and I serve our country…”
·         “Some might call this a good record. I call it a good start. Tonight I ask the House and the Senate to join me…”
·         “I am proposing that all the income tax reductions set for 2004 and 2006 be made permanent and effective this year.”
·         “I ask you to end the unfair double taxation of dividends.”
·         “I will send you a budget that increases discretionary spending by 4 percent next year, about as much as the average family's income is expected to grow.”
·         “… about strengthening Medicare. I urge the members of this new Congress to act this year.”
·         “I have sent you…”
·         “I urge you to pass…”
·         “I ask you…”
·         “Tonight I ask Congress and the American people to focus the spirit of service and the resources of government on the needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens…”
·         “I propose…”
·         “I ask you to protect infants at the very hour of their birth and end the practice of partial-birth abortion.”
·         “There's never a day when I do not learn of another threat, or receive reports of operations in progress or give an order in this global war against a scattered network of killers. The war goes on, and we are winning.”
·         “I thank the Congress…”
·         “The budget I send you will propose almost $6 billion to quickly make available effective vaccines and treatments against agents like anthrax, botulinum toxin, ebola and plague. We must assume that our enemies would use these diseases as weapons, and we must act before the dangers are upon us.”
·         “Tonight, I am instructing the leaders…”
·         “I will defend the freedom and security of the American people.”
·         “I have a message for the brave and oppressed people of Iraq: Your enemy is not surrounding your country, your enemy is ruling your country.”
·         “Tonight I have a message for the men and women who will keep the peace, members of the American armed forces.”
That is essentially the entire list. There is not a single moment where he takes credit or where he orders Congress or anyone else to take his orders. He thanks; he asks; he proposes; he urges. This was the man the media said didn’t know how to speak.
There are too many self-references in this year’s SOTU to handle them all, but we can sample.
·         “In two weeks, I will send this Congress a budget filled with ideas…”
·         “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist of proposals…”
·         “You [two representative hard workers who suffered in the bad economy] are the reason I ran for this office. You're the people I was thinking of six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis, when I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation.”
·         “And to everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this…”
·         “That's why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college—to zero.”
·         “I want to spread that idea all across America…”
·         “And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure…”
·         “I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine…”
·         “I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks…”
·         “I want Americans to…”
·         “…when it comes to issues like infrastructure and basic research, I know there's bipartisan support in this chamber…”
·         “I believe it's where the American people want to go.”
·         “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership.”
·         “…we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we've done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies.”
·         “I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.”
·         “…I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.”
·         “…I will veto any new sanctions bill…”
·         “I urge this Congress to finally pass the legislation we need to better meet the evolving threat of cyber-attacks, combat identity theft, and protect our children's information.”
·         “I couldn't be prouder of [our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers who fought Ebola in West Africa], and I thank this Congress for your bipartisan support of their efforts.”
·         “…I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate.”
·         “I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children…”
·         “I will not relent in my determination to shut [GTMO] down.”
·         “You know, just over a decade ago [at the 2004 Democratic National Convention], I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn't a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America—but a United States of America. I said this because I had seen it in my own life, in a nation that gave someone like me a chance; because I grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs; because I made Illinois my home…”
·         “I know…. I still think…. I believe…. I have seen…”
·         “I know…. I know…. I know….”
·         “I have no more campaigns to run. I know, because I won them both.”
·         “I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol—to do what I believe is best for America.”
·         “I hope you'll at least work with me…”
·         “I want…. I want…. I want…. I want…. I want….”
I tried to give a good representative sample, without skewing to make him look bad. You need to see the final paragraphs in context to understand all those “I want”s. I think this was an attempt at parallel construction. An example would be, from My Fair Lady, when Eliza’s dustman father says, “I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.” The same construction emphasizes the word(s) you change, adding power and meaningfulness. Lincoln was very good at this. But, in my opinion, a series of “I want”s sounds very much like a spoiled 5-year-old to a weak parent the child knows will give in.
Some of Obama’s uses of the first-person pronoun were acceptable. Most would have come from a less self-absorbed person worded differently.
A SOTU address is a report, to the legislative branch, on how well the laws are being executed, and how effective the enacted laws have been at presumably protecting life, liberty, and property. They are not intended as a propaganda platform to go directly to the American people to say, “I’m trying to give you this, and this, and this, but these obstructionist legislators are getting in the way, so I’d like you to help pressure them.”
I did a quick review of the Clinton and Reagan speeches, because they both used about the same rate of first-person pronouns. Clinton’s were mostly appropriate to expectation. Many were “I propose....” Some were “I ask….” A few were to reference stories showing he related to the people. I didn’t like Clinton; all those proposals were mostly beyond the proper role of government. But he seemed to respect the process, and the American people.
Reagan’s were particularly endearing. Here are just a few:
·         “I congratulate…”
·         “I stand on the shoulders of giants…”
·         “I invoke special executive powers to declare that each of you [members of Congress] must never be titled less than honorable with a capital ‘H.’ Incidentally, I'm delighted you are celebrating the 100th birthday of the Congress. It's always a pleasure to congratulate someone with more birthdays than I've had.”
·         “I cannot find better words…”
·         “I renew that pledge…”
·         “I assume full responsibility.”
·         “I am pleased to report…”
·         “I begin with a gentle reminder…”
·         “The responsibility of freedom presses us towards higher knowledge and, I believe, moral and spiritual greatness. Through lower taxes and smaller government, government has its ways of freeing people's spirits. But only we, each of us, can let the spirit soar against our own individual standards. Excellence is what makes freedom ring. And isn't that what we do best?”
I miss that voice.
What does this look at linguistics tell us? It’s the sub-text of the speech. Even with the help of speechwriters, apparently it’s hard to cover up the thinking.
I don’t recommend simply getting wordsmiths who will alter the words to hide who the speaker really is. I recommend change. Transformation. From power-monger to service leader. Failing that, change to a much better leader in a couple of years.

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