Will new word order embetter us?

May 2, 2003

   'Sometimes that doesn't happen all the time' - the verbal chaos of America's president has baffled many people, but Alan Cienki finds linguistic logic in it.

At a press conference in Belfast a couple of weeks ago, US president George W. Bush was asked exactly what he meant by a "vital role" for the United Nations in postwar Iraq. The US president replied:

"Evidently there's some scepticism here in Europe about whether or not I mean what I say." Given some of his more notable quotes in recent years, surely one cannot be blamed for some scepticism. The president has a penchant for inadvertent creative use of language.

This was particularly apparent during his speaking engagements around the US presidential elections in 2000. Examples include: "I think they misunderestimated the will and determination of the commander-in-chief", "sometimes that doesn't happen all the time in the political process", and "this issue doesn't seem to resignate with the people". Such statements have occurred frequently enough to earn their own name: "Bushisms". Entire websites and several books are devoted to these gems.

But there is more to Bushisms than unintended wit. As a linguist interested in what language reveals about cognitive processes, I see the documented Bushisms as a rare dataset - a collection of speech errors made by the same person over a span of years. Studying them can tell us something about general relations between thought and speech. They are far from random utterances or complete nonsense. When Bush invents a word (such as the "embetterment" of mankind) or uses the wrong word (as in "reading is the basics for all learning"), we are still able to get a sense of what he might have intended to say. In fact, we all make the occasional Bushism at one point or another. Bush just happens to make them more frequently than most and does so in very public contexts. The issues that Bushisms raise about processes involved in "thinking for speaking" are pertinent to anyone who gives public lectures, especially the educators among us. Their analysis also indicates some tendencies in this particular speaker's patterns of thought that, given the individual involved, can have implications beyond the mere use of language.

For some Bushisms, there is a simple linguistic explanation: they involve a combination of two words or two phrases. So in the example "misunderestimated", "misunderstood" is combined with "underestimated". In a phrase such as "sometimes that doesn't happen all the time", it is not difficult to tease apart the two overlapping parts. The process involved, called "blending", is often used intentionally to label new concepts, such as cranapple juice and the Chunnel.

Some examples, however, are not so easily explained, such as when Bush said: "I understand small business growth. I was one." Each sentence by itself is normal. But in the context, the intended meaning - presumably that he was a small-business owner - cannot be found simply by untangling the different pieces of what was said. Here we can bring in research in cognitive science. Scholars have pointed out ways in which blending occurs not only in language, but also in thought. We are continually integrating relevant parts of concepts to understand new situations, and to make sense as we comprehend language. Conversely, when we produce a sentence, we normally have an idea to express that is a complex whole. The trick is to find the shared patterns of words available in our language to guide our audience to construct (even approximately) the same idea that we have.

One problem with Bushisms is that they involve links between concepts that would not conventionally be expected. Sometimes you have to get inside Bush's head to make the same connections that he makes. When he says: "I understand small business growth. I was one," you can understand it if you take his perspective on what he is describing. What would be most prominent in that scene as it relates to his life? Himself - as the small-business owner. Thus we figure out what was meant by "I was one". In other cases, a Bushism may reflect a novel idea that simply doesn't have a readily available word in the language for its expression. So when Bush spoke of helping Russia "securitise" its dismantled nuclear warheads, did he simply mean to "secure", or was there also a possible reference to the issues of security involved? By "misunderestimate" did he mean "badly underestimate"?

Good public speakers can put themselves in their audience's shoes. They can see their speech from the audience's perspective, and thereby make the logical connections in their argument explicit. Talking on our feet entails suppressing certain things that may come to mind first but are not relevant for expressing the intended idea.

One reason something can be fresh in our minds is that we have just said it. Bush clearly has a problem with saying what he really means rather than simply repeating recent referents. So we see statements such as: "I have a different vision of leadership. A leadership is someone who brings people together."

Another reason words may appear on the tip of our tongues even if we don't want them there is their relative frequency in the language. Take the example: "This issue doesn't seem to resignate with the people."

Word-frequency counts on large samples of English usage show that "resignation" occurs far more frequently than "resonate" (and the former may also be an idea lurking in the back of a politician's mind as a feared fate). Its greater frequency of use is a factor that can make the word easier to access mentally, resulting in the formation of a new verb "resignate" in place of the infrequent, but extant, verb "resonate".

All of this may have some relevance for understanding how we formulate our thoughts for speech. But does the fact that it is the US president who is producing these examples give the issue any special significance? I believe it does, for several reasons, and one I would highlight is the problem of perspective. Granted, Bush may sometimes consciously utilise his talent for these kinds of statements to play up a "folksy" persona. However, many Bushisms appear to involve the speaker's unwitting inability to suppress his own perspective in favour of the audience's. To put it another way, one underlying factor may be a lack of empathetic thinking while speaking, preventing identification with "the other's" point of view. (By way of contrast, note an oft-repeated phrase that former US president Bill Clinton became known for: "I feel your pain.") Where does this leave us at a time when the US is trying to demonstrate that it is acting in the best interest of certain others around the world? Empathy may be more important now than ever as a basis for effective communication.

Alan Cienki is associate professor of linguistics at Emory University, US, and is visiting scholar at the Vrije Universiteit, Netherlands. Selections of Bushisms can be found at http://politicalhumor.about.com/library/blbushisms.htm
and at http://www.bushwatch.net/english.htm

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