Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Pronouns: The reunion tour

The Fabulous Pronouns are back on the road! Take it away, The Washington Examiner:

President Trump referred to himself during his first speech to a joint session of Congress at a much lower rate than former President Barack Obama did in his first address in February 2009, roughly half as often.

Trump used the word "I" 40 times and said "my" 12 times during his speech at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday evening. During Obama's first such address eight years earlier, he said "I" a total of 68 times and "my" on eight occasions.

Sigh. I'm not seeing a "rate" here (or a significance test, though that claim was echoed as the story spread to
the Fox Nation). If your interest is in first-person singular pronouns as a proportion of total words, rather than per speech, per day or something, you'll have to calculate it yourself. Going by the figures the Examiner provides for Trump and CNN's transcript, we have 52 FPS pronouns in 4,828 words, or a little less than 1.1%. The Kenyan usurper (transcript from the Washington Post) had 76 FPS pronouns in 5,940 words, or a little less than 1.3%, in his 2009 address.

Why didn't the Examiner count "me"? Interesting question! (Apparently "pronoun," like "significant," means whatever the Washington Examiner wants it to mean.) Adding "me" to the mix, I get 1.4% for Obama, 1.2% for Trump. But before we worry about whether one difference or another is significant, meaning unlikely at a predetermined confidence level to have come about by chance, it might be worth looking at the distribution of pronouns in various State of the Union addresses. A significance test would help understand whether this comparison is more like LBJ to Nixon or like Bush Jr. to his (apparently quite uppity) dad. It wouldn't explain why this speech feature was related to the underlying social condition it purports to explain or what it might say about broader political circumstances.

We don't generally think of WWII bomber pilots as "uppity," which does point to one of the underlying conditions afoot here. Any suggestion that the right-wing media's* obsession with Obama's FPS frequency, even when it was demonstrably lower than his predecessors', reflects an obsession with Obama's race tends to bring forth sighs of I-expected-better-than-this. Let me address that for a moment. Certainly, not every reference -- not even every fabricated reference -- to a purported Obama trait or behavior is racist per se. But there does come a point where deduction from traits and behaviors -- pronouns, golf, the teleprompter, courtesy to foreign leaders and an "urban guy" disdain for the bucolic comforts of Camp David, to name five -- forms a pattern, and that pattern seems to be: It's only a problem when the actor is not a white guy.

"Campaign mode" is another trait that, while an apparent virtue in Trump, was a sign of Kenyan duplicity in Obama, and again was indexed by pronoun frequency. Responsibility is conceptualized similarly: "It's inconceivable" that a leader like Ike, with the weight of Operation Overlord on his shoulders, would have stooped to Obama's habits. Fascinating, then, to see Mr. Trump apportioning responsibility for combat losses:

Weeks after a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in a covert mission in Yemen, Trump has resisted accepting responsibility for authorizing the mission and the subsequent death of Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens.

In an interview with Fox News that aired Tuesday morning, Trump said the mission “was started before I got here.”

He noted that the operation was something his generals “were looking at for a long time doing.”

This was something that was, you know, just — they wanted to do,” Trump said. “ And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected.”

“And they lost Ryan,” Trump continued.

There's much more to discuss from the Tuesday speech: the elevation of the F35 to "fantastic" status, the hope for new railways "gleaming across our beautiful land," the strangely imperial recounting of the Trump "rebellion." But for now -- buy your T-shirts and line up early for tickets, because the pronouns have gotten the band back together.

* Mark Liberman at Language Log often concentrates on the pundit camp: certainly a valuable field of study, but the regularity with which -- as here -- the pronoun meme becomes a news story is worth remarking too.

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Blogger Mark Liberman said...

"the regularity with which -- as here -- the pronoun meme becomes a news story is worth remarking"

What, you mean that there are news stories in the Washington Examiner? Who knew!

4:50 PM, March 01, 2017  
Blogger fev said...

Well, in a narrow technical sense ...

9:04 PM, March 04, 2017  

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