The Genuine Article

October 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump has a tell – an unconscious tic that divulges genuine ideas and feelings that are different from the views he consciously wants to convey. His tell is the word “the.”

“I will be phenomenal to the women, I mean I'lI want to help women,” said Donald Trump back in August of 2015, when he was one of many Republicans campaigning for the party’s nomination. John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” had asked him why women should vote for him.

I bring this up not because women voters reject Trump’s own self-assessment, though reject it they do.  Here is Nate Silver’s estimate of what the election would look like if only women voted.

What struck me was Trump’s use of the definite article. “Phenomenal to the women,” rather than just “phenomenal to women.” On the surface, Trump was saying that when it came to women voters, he was on their side. But the definite article subtly the contradicted that assertion. As I blogged at the time (here),

when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society.. . . turning them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

Linguist Lynne Murphy (here) heard something similar during the most recent debate, regarding not women but minorities.

One of the littlest words in the English language gives the biggest clue about where Donald Trump’s head is at: his use of the word “the.”

Trump promised, “I’m going to help the African-Americans. I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics. I am going to help the inner cities. [Clinton has] done a terrible job for the African-Americans.”

By using the definite article, says Murphy, the speaker builds a wall between himself and the group he is talking about. “The” turns them into the “other.”

“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group.

Nate Silver has not offered maps showing what the election would look like if only Blacks, Hispanics, and inner-cities voted, but I suspect they would resemble that of the women.

Murphy, a “reader” in linguistics at the University of Sussex, notes a similar “the” othering among her fellow UK linguists. This same tell reveals how they feel about those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Are we “Americans,” or are we “the Americans”?

British writers’ views on American English are a good predictor of whether they’ll write “Americans say it that way” or “The Americans say it that way.” Those who feel that American English threatens British English use “the” to hold Americans at arm’s length (possibly while holding their noses).

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