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Linguistics in the News – Election season

Whatever happens after November 8, it’s safe to say that it’s been a pretty interesting election campaign season, one full of linguistic debates and analyses. We’ve seen articles that cover topics ranging from Hilary Clinton’s voice to Donald Trump’s use of the + [name of minority groups], and of course the whole bigly vs. big league question (answer: he said big league).

To give you an idea of how useful linguistics can be, here’s a list of articles that show how various kinds of linguistic analysis have been applicable to this election season:

In the realm of sociophonetics, which includes the perception of speech as produced by certain groups in society, much noise was made about the nature Hilary Clinton’s voice. In fact, The Atlantic ran a video article on The science behind hating Hilary’s voice, which mentioned that in terms of pitch, Clinton’s voice is not unusual for her age and gender, although it might be perceived as being louder than average when she speaks in a microphone. Personally, I’d take what the vocal coaches had to say with a large grain of salt. But by the end of the video the journalist does raise the point that people may pick on her voice simply because she is female, something that sociolinguists like Penny Eckert are all too aware of, especially from the negative social judgments of women, but not men, who do ‘vocal fry’ or ‘uptalk’.

In the realm of acoustic phonetics, Susin Lin at UC Berkeley was quick to show acoustic phonetic evidence that Trump did indeed say big league, and not bigly, as many people had heard. NPR did a piece that cites Lin, but also examines Trump’s history of using the phrase big league: So, which is it: Bigly or Big-League? Linguists take on a common Trumpism

In the realms of syntax and semantics, Trump’s use of the definite article the when talking about ethnic groups came under scrutiny. Lynne Murphy explains that the use of the + [ethnic group] makes the members of the group sound like some undifferentiated uniform mass, which is key to ‘othering’ them: Linguistics explains why Trump sounds racist when he says “the” African Americans.

In the field of corpus linguistics, David Robinson, a data scientist did a text analysis of Trump’s tweets and was able to confirm that the less ‘angry’ half of tweets coming from Trump’s Twitter account were written by someone else: Text analysis of Trump’s tweets confirms he writes only the (angrier) Android half (you can check out his R code too)

Finally, when it came to a linguistic analysis of the presidential debates, Jean K. Gordon examined the transcripts from the 1st and 2nd debates to study speaker-specific differences in language use, such as Clinton producing far fewer sentence fragments than Trump; or Trump using first person singular pronouns (I, me, myself) and second person pronouns (you, your) twice as often as Hilary,  who was more likely to use first person plural pronouns (we, us).

While Gordon’s blog post also looked at which candidate was more likely to be interrupted by the other or by the moderator(s), other articles like this one in Time looked at which person in each debate was likely to be source of such interruptions. No guesses who wins there.

So in the spirit of debate (and if you’re not feeling too depressed), feel free to chime in if you think I missed out on a cool / interesting election-related linguistics article!

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