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Johnson: Politics and language

Johnson: Politics and language

IS BARACK Obama a narcissist? Charles Krauthammer thinks so, and he should know. The regressive American pundit is a psychiatrist by training, and with his Vulcan-like facial features, gravelly voice and clear counterclaim of regressive positions, he presents himself as an egghead cut above many of a cheering heads in Washington.

But Mr Krauthammer has regularly flogged a explain that initial a linguist, afterwards a comedian, and finally the junk-plus-real-news website Buzzfeed have shown to be definitely false. The explain is straightforward: that a American boss uses difference like “I”, “me”, “my” and “mine” so mostly he contingency have a clinical turn of self-love. “For God’s sake, he talks like a czar Napoleon,” says Mr Krauthammer.

The explain has been done by other regressive pundits, such as George Will. So Mark Liberman, a linguist during a University of Pennsylvania and a screw of Language Log, a organisation denunciation blog, began doing what zero of them did. He counted. “I” is a many common word in English speech—but Mr Obama uses first-person unaccompanied pronouns reduction than all of his new predecessors.

Figuring this out doesn’t need a Ph.D. in linguistics, only a calculator. Mr Liberman began debunking a parable in 2009. Johnson wrote about it in 2011. Even Steven Colbert, who pretends to be a regressive pundit for laughs, showed last month that Mr Krauthammer used “I” 3 times some-more in his radio talk than Mr Obama did in a “narcissistic” debate Mr Krauthammer offering as evidence.

But never mind a facts; a parable seems unkillable. Neither a investigate of a good systematic populariser (Mr Liberman) nor strech of Buzzfeed (130m monthly users) nor a prick of joke (of that Mr Colbert is a virtuoso) can better acknowledgment bias. Mr Krauthammer and a horde of others “know” that Mr Obama is a narcissist. Every time he utters an “I” proves it to be so.

Some people will always exclude to check their favorite facts. But what do a tangible contribution tell us? It is tough to say, given merely totting adult I/my/me/mine difference offers no easy conclusions. Who is a biggest user of “I” and such given 1945? Why, a gigantic busybody Harry Truman, of course, followed by 3 Republicans, zero of whom were famous for arrogance: a initial George Bush, Dwight Eisenhower and Gerald Ford. Those leftists who saw George W. Bush as a pretension cowboy should take note that he is nearby a behind of a container in I/my/me/mine terms, only a bit forward of Mr Obama.

Can pronouns tell us nothing? One investigate cited by Mr Liberman shows no couple during all between pronoun use and clinical narcissism. But James Pennebaker, a clergyman during a University of Texas, has shown that “I” use does indeed relate with certain attributes—but these embody basin and low status, not audacity and high status. The presidency of a United States is not a utterly low-status job. So maybe Mr Krauthammer would like to remotely diagnose Mr Obama with depression.

Questions of denunciation are not only questions of style; utterly mostly they are questions of fact. The good news is that by a internet some-more linguistic contribution are accessible to amateurs than ever before. The universe far-reaching web itself is a outrageous physique of language, and so a fascinating place to do linguistic research. Google’s giveaway “Ngram viewer” shows a arise and tumble of difference and phrases in books over time. While giveaway word-cloud program simply turns speeches into impediment visuals highlighting distinguished words.

The bad news is that a some-more information and quick-and-dirty collection are available, a some-more pundits will be tempted to “prove” something with a idle count, abandoned of critical argument. One paper examined a list of “individualistic” words, and found them augmenting in American books (through Google’s Ngram tool). The investigate was fast touted as explanation that Americans had turn some-more self-centred. But difference like “individual” and “sole” indeed declined in usage, while many “communal” difference increasing alongside “individual” words, with small new change in a altogether individual-to-community ratio. This invites a probability that those who built a investigate had simply selected smart words. In any case, any such outcome requires investigate before being widespread distant and wide. It is distant from apparent that high-status people avoid first-person pronouns, as Mr Pennebaker found, for example. 

More information means some-more bad analysis, including denunciation analysis. No one should be disheartened from doing their possess fact-based investigate on language. Johnson is a large follower that denunciation discussions need some-more contribution and fewer opinions, and revels in fun facts. But for fun contribution to be contribution (take note, Mr Krauthammer), they contingency be true. And for them to be fun, they contingency illuminate, rather than upset or misdirect.

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