Does Trump have a low verbal ability? Let’s look at his language from a linguistic standpoint

What can Trump’s language tell us about his thought process?

Madelaine Hanson
Jul 7, 2018 · 8 min read

Author’s Note: A low verbal ability is not the same as a speech impairment. A low verbal ability, much like a low numerical ability, does not denote disability, physical impairment or a cognitive disorder. Everyone has a different level of ability in different areas of human interaction and thought.

“He talks funnily,” A little girl says the the camera, when she’s asked about Donald Trump. “He says ‘HUGE’ a lot.” Her forehead twists up in thought. “He sounds a bit silly.”

Donald Trump: Verbally impaired, or a brilliant showman?

Well, she said it. Donald Trump certainly has an unusual speech pattern that doesn’t suggest a large vocabulary. Of course, it goes without saying that we all have different levels of ability. As pack animals, it is hardly surprising that humans have an incredibly rich range of skills, abilities and strengths.

There isn’t just one way to be intelligent. I, for example, score particularly badly in numerical ability. But, in balance, I’ve also just completed my BSc in Biological Anthropology (yippee). That’s fine. There is no shame in having strengths and weaknesses.

But it is unusual, I’m sure we will all agree, for someone in the most senior office on the planet to have a particularly poor command of their first language. Being a bit rubbish at quadratics or tennis is pretty acceptable for a president or prime minister, but speaking clearly and with authority is something of a given. And Trump does, irrefutably some might say, struggle to verbalise without clearly scripted and signposted speech. What’s going on in his head for that to happen?

Using what I have learnt in the last three years, thought I’d take a quick look at what his language.

Tangents

Trump appears to find synonymic and analagous connections challenging

A tangent is an element of communication -written or spoken- that does not lead on directly from the main point of the statement. If I was giving a lecture on wasps, for example, I might add on a story about a bee that stung me on the lip. This is totally fine, but most people would limit the amount of tangents they use in a conversation, or signpost them in order to keep their thought process accessible.

A signpost is any element of speech we use to connect and illustrate what is about to follow. Words like ‘similarly’ or using phrases such as ‘on a different note’ suggest a change in the topic or a new area of discussion. Most people with an average or high verbal ability will do this without thinking in discussion or a piece of written work. Trump of course, hurtles down a ski slope of confusing unscripted tangents at an infamous speed.

“I have broken more Elton John records, he seems to have a lot of records. And I, by the way, I don’t have a musical instrument. I don’t have a guitar or an organ. No organ. Elton has an organ. And lots of other people helping. No we’ve broken a lot of records. We’ve broken virtually every record.”

- Donald Trump, speaking in Montana

Why is this confusing? Because there isn’t any signposting. What he means isn’t what is coming out of his mouth. This suggests cognitive and verbal dissonance (mismatch). He needs to clearly signpost his crowd-size as a record in reference, rather than ‘record’ in a musical sense. He’s having to repeat words and phrases to try and illustrate what he means. A lack of signposting and heavy repetition strongly suggests some form of verbal and thought process mismatch. He clearly knows what he wants to say, he’s just struggling to verbalise it.

Repetition

The ways in which we verbalise can tell us a lot about how we construct our thoughts

Ever had to stall what you are saying to find the word or phrase you want? For most of us, that’s an everyday thing. Nothing to worry about! The three main ways we tend to do that are through ellipsis (pausing) repetition (reusing words or phrases to take up time) and of course, fillers (umm and uh).

Normally, this is a very common communication technique and pretty useful in terms of giving us enough time to say what we need to say. It requires a longer thought process to find the meaning for ‘phenotype’ or where you saw Sandra last week. The problem is when you lose your ability to verbalise clearly due to an excessive amount of stalling. Typically people with a lower verbal ability will need a longer time to come up with what they’d like to say. This can cause awkwardness, appearing unintelligent, or often incoherrence.

“The line of ‘Make America great again,’ the phrase, that was mine, I came up with it about a year ago, and I kept using it, and everybody’s using it, they are all loving it. I don’t know, I guess I should copyright it, maybe I have copyrighted it.”

- Donald Trump, speaking on MyFox

He uses phrases that have the same meaning repeatedly, while using a short break rather than the customary pause to signal the end of the sentence. He’s not slowing down to speak at all, and this means that he is having to repeat himself in a way that doesn’t come across well. ‘That phrase was mine’ and ‘I came up with it about a year ago’ followed by ‘I guess I should copyright it, maybe I have copyrighted it’.

Repetition can be a useful tool to drive home information, but this suggests he is trying to verbalise something he hasn’t fully thought through. I would again suggest that Donald Trump struggles to articulate himself. And he does this a lot.

“I think Viagra is wonderful if you need it, if you have medical issues, if you’ve had surgery. I’ve just never needed it. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind if there were an anti-Viagra, something with the opposite effect. I’m not bragging. I’m just lucky. I don’t need it.”

Vocabulary

Donald Trump has an extremely limited vocabulary. This is surprising for someone who has clearly had an extensive education: he attended some of the best private schools in the country. In an average ability child (IQ 80 to 120) most studies support the idea that an exposure to a complex vocabulary increases the number of words the child uses and communicates with on a regular basis. So a child who reads more and talks more will usually have a higher vocabulary (number of words in their comprehension) than a child who does not.

Knowing a lot of synonyms (words with similar meanings) denotes a higher verbal empathy (ability to express thought to others in a sensitive or convincing manner).

Having a limited vocabulary can be very detrimental to your ability to articulate yourself and communicate clearly. Synonyms and adjectives can particularly help us stress what we really mean: saying “Seeing grandma’s scarf makes me sad” does not carry the weight of “I feel emotionally distressed whenever I see Grandma’s scarf on the door; it makes me comprehend that I too will leave things behind, including my family.”

People who can articulate clearly through ‘the right words’- that is, the right choice of synonyms, can often illustrate more empathy within a situation. And, as I do not need to tell you, knowing the ‘right words’ for a situation as a politican can be career saving.

The connotations of words that have a loaded meaning can result in a PR disaster. You don’t say ‘tramp’, you say ‘homeless person’. You don’t call someone’s position ‘stupid’ you say that you don’t see eye to eye on the same issue. You definitely don’t say ‘foreigners’ when you are talking about war refugees. The list of incidences where you need to be able to know the terms and cultural implications of words is unending.

And Trump really, really struggles finding The Right Words.

“We’re rounding ’em up in a very humane way, in a very nice way. And they’re going to be happy because they want to be legalized. And, by the way, I know it doesn’t sound nice. But not everything is nice.”

- Donald Trump, speaking on 60 Minutes

I genuinely do not believe that he is just an incredibly callous and stupid person: well, not completely. I do think that he learns by copying words he has heard from people in casual situations, and that he then repeats them to appear ‘part of the pack’. He probably reads tweets, comments on articles, or phrases from his yesmen, and parrots them to appear more in touch with what the ‘average man’ is thinking.

‘Rounding ’em up’ is an simple term to use, but definitely not the correct one to use when talking about immigrants, obviously. Sheep, maybe, but that’s about it. The term is not appropriate and he knows as soon as he’s said it; the phrase finishes with ‘in a very nice way’. He’s not able to articulate himself in a way that suggests a high level of empathy or careful thought. This is not something I would expect to find in an adult who was speaking to a large audience. The linguistic context of what patriot4MAGA68 is prepared to post on Twitter and what a President can announce in a speech on foreign policy are somewhat different.

Words like ‘very nice’ and ‘going to be happy’ are similarly very childlike. I’m strongly inclined to believe something I’ve seen many times in case studies: A person who found school boring, neglected reading or learning new terms, and was seldom corrected on his language due to his parent’s financial status. As an adult, his vocabulary has not surpassed that level.

Is he possibly playing up to ‘the working man’ of his demographic? Very possibly, perhaps definitely. But he was talking in these simplistic, contextually inappropriate terms long before his election.

It bodes well for him in terms of his demographic as he says things in a blunt, offensive way lacking the ‘slickness’ of political language, but I don’t think it comes from a place of verbal ability, rather the lack thereof. He displays a disturbing lack of empathy and verbal ability for someone with so much power: language is, after all, the most important communicative and bonding tool we have as a species.

Madelaine Hanson

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23 year old with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually. Email me at m.l.hanson@outlook.com