Symposium | Halfway Home?

The Worst Words

By Virginia Heffernan

Tagged Donald TrumpLanguage

In November 2016 in these pages, I wrote about Donald Trump’s language, an unusual tribal dialect defined by tweets with erratic typography, insults, and violent chants. I proposed that conventional forms of communicating in Standard American English (SAE), including op-eds and newspaper reports, had proven insufficient to the task of interpreting Trump’s speech during the campaign. Many in traditional media who still use SAE are reduced to two competing options: pretending Trump’s utterances have semantic integrity and can be parsed, or miserably registering them as punches to the face.

Around the world, it is estimated that about 60 percent of people speak two or more canonical languages fluently. In America, some 15 to 20 percent do. That’s crucial to understanding our currently vexed country: At least 80 percent of us walk straitened through life in English, stuck running on the same grammatical rails to the grave.

Monoglotism easily doubles as entitlement. Marginalized people, including LGBTQ folks and people of color, find they have to master a community dialect as well as a mainstream one, whereas the monoglot sits smugly in his own, affecting non-comprehension, or judging certain diction as a deviation from his own often exotic dialect, and thus “wrong.”

In Trumpian times, when the bulk of communications are digital, dialects have proliferated. When Americans hear the phonemes “Seth Rich” or “witch hunt,” for instance, speakers of one dialect hear something; speakers of another dialect hear something else. To test your own polyglotism, ask yourself if you can hear the words “witch hunt” signifying, simultaneously, treachery by Democrats, defensiveness by Republicans, and the seventeenth-century persecution of New England girls.

In other words, in the eye of our hyperpolyglot culture stands a bellowing President who not only speaks exclusively English (except perhaps the Spanish word “hombres”), but a radically narrow-band and crude dialect that he once called “locker-room talk.” Senior officials in Trump’s own White House call his dialect “repetitive rants.” In an SAE op-ed published in The New York Times, one official suggested that many staff try to tune out the President’s speech as gibberish, until it becomes potentially dangerous, at which point they must “walk it back.” And as Trump’s presidency has carried on like hurdy-gurdy he seems to be spiraling closer to that rare thing linguistics calls a “private language,” the babbling eccentricity of speakers determined to use speech in pursuit of originality and fame, to “stand out.”

Trump’s speech has even become more turbulent since 2016: “rants” made up of disintegrated language that no longer makes any pretense of designating anything in the real world. This is language that, if it has any purpose at all, is meant to serve as violence—to shut people up, to spite and humiliate them.

The week of this writing, Trump is said to be submitting written answers to what are bound to be formidable questions from the team of special prosecutor Robert Mueller. Though Trump once compared himself to Ernest Hemingway and, of course, says he has the “best words,” Trump will almost certainly not lend his prose style to the document. Halfway through his first term, his team considers him non compis mentis, and perhaps the keeper of an idiom that would have him Sharpie “NO COLLUSION” in all caps in a letter to Mueller.

By 2020, if he’s still President, it’s impossible he’ll have become “presidential,” as Van Jones suggested in March 2017, after he seemed to pull off intelligible English in a brief speech before Congress. What’s more likely is that his cognitive powers will devolve, and with them his language skills. There the ball will be in his listeners’ court: At what point do concerned citizens stop making meaning of Trump’s words and begin considering them as the diseased firings of a mind in trouble?

Families of addicts are taught to consider the addict’s speech as a wall of sound, designed entirely to confuse and exhaust; their job in the face of it is to keep their own counsel, resist confusion, and refuse to let the addict’s rants touch their own logic. This is one way to proceed. The other approach is to hold in the mind, at least, your own set of non-standard responses to non-standard speech. Many of the best quips on Twitter—in response to Trump’s own tweets—do this. Then there’s plain fantasy. As one reporter told me recently, the headlines of his newspaper continuously suggest a linearity to the Trump story. But in his view, every single headline could read, more simply: “Holy Fucking Shit.”

From the Symposium

Halfway Home?


A Blow Against "Aggrieved Whiteness"

By Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.


See All

Read more about Donald TrumpLanguage

Virginia Heffernan is a contributor at WIRED. She is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. She is also a cohost of Trumpcast, an op-ed columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and a frequent contributor to Politico.

Also by this author

Rallying Cries, Locker-Room Talk, and Tweets

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus