Linguists have had a field day with Donald Trump. His speeches are geared for a fourth-grade reading level, with very few four-syllable words.
BY SARAH SULLIVAN
This morning, I watched Donald Trump on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. Other than Donald’s wildly inaccurate claims about tax rates, voting regulations, and that France and Germany have been compromised by terrorism (last I checked, both countries are running quite well), I was struck by his language. If I hadn’t seen him on the screen, I would have guessed that Chuck Todd was talking to a belligerent child.
I’ve tutored children in writing for over 15 years; I’m familiar with where their sentence structure and vocabulary need to be by a certain age. The Donald fits right into the slot for 8-11-year-olds as far as grammar, lexicon, and sentence construction are concerned. He also fits into a historical pattern; his speech is similar to the writing in the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis, which was written a staggering 2,500 years ago. Since then, writing has evolved significantly, from Chaucer’s medieval irony to Shakespeare’s sonnets to the absurdism of Waiting for Godot. And yet Donald Trump’s key appeal to voters is his fourth-grade, almost 3,000-year-old use of language.
In ninth grade, our class read The Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the world’s first piece of literature. It’s a wandering, meandering epic; Gilgamesh defeats a monster, spurns the goddess Ishtar’s affection, and then searches the underworld for his dead friend. Well, great. And? It’s more of an insight into Babylonian culture circa 2100 B.C. than an actual story with conflict and resolution. It struck me as something a younger child, maybe between ages 6-9, would write. "I had a pet dolphin named Sally. Me and Sally went swimming. I like swimming. We saw a turtle." There’s no real explanation for how Sally got there and the story veers off course towards the child’s athletic preferences. This is more or less the first stage of writing, both in historical and developmental fields.
The second stage of writing begins around age 10-12 and lasts from about 1500-500 B.C., ending with the Priestly era of Jewish literature. This is roughly where Donald Trump falls on the English language capability scale. Preteens and society both learn that writing is a great tool for communication. However, these stories require a great leap of faith. They’re not particularly realistic, and meaning is vastly preferred over truth.
Around age 10, kids begin writing stories that have a point. There is a conflict, a resolution, an end, and a purpose. Even better, they learn that writing can provoke emotions in a reader. It’s not uncommon to see wildly imaginative superhero stories around this time. At 11, I wrote a 100-page book about a group of children who were kidnapped and the police rescued them. It had a conflict, resolution, and an end, but was hilariously unrealistic. (At one point, the police pursue the kidnappers down I-95 to Florida but have to stop and buy summer clothes.) Subplots were frequently abandoned and lack of continuity ran rampant.
The Book of Genesis is an excellent example of this second stage. It was written with a clear purpose (the origins of the Jewish people) but requires an extraordinary leap of faith- the belief in an all-knowing deity called YHWH who could not be seen with the human eye. There are numerous continuity issues, most notably the two different creation stories. Mysteries, such as Sarah bearing a child in old age or Moses parting the Red Sea, are not explained with complex natural or psychological reasoning. Instead, the answer is simply "God." (I’m not refuting God’s existence, just commenting on the writing style of the period.) This was a literary era focused more on meaning than facts, similar to how your typical fifth-grader writes a creative story--and eerily similar to Donald Trump.
Donald Trump, through a roughly fifth-grade English language capacity, also focuses more on meaning than facts. He’s claimed a number of outrageously absurd whoppers regarding the 2015 GDP staying static (it actually grew), solely self-funding his campaign (he accepted $7.5 million from outside donors), and Wisconsin’s supposed massive $2.2 billion deficit (they are actually projected to have a positive balance). Politico magazine found that during his speeches, Trump lied every five minutes. And he doesn’t seem to care. Much like a creative sixth-grader writing a story about a ninja warrior trapped in an ice castle, reality and truth aren’t given much consideration.
Linguists have had a field day with Donald Trump. His speeches are geared for a fourth-grade reading level, with very few four-syllable words. He doesn’t use any complex sentence structures. His vocabulary is notoriously poor and centers around a few repetitive words such as "tremendous" and "problem." Most insidious of all, he ends his rambling nonsense with words such as "problem," "liars," and "losers"--which is what most of his viewers eventually take away from his speeches. I never thought I’d see a presidential candidate make Dubya look like an eloquent orator, but here we are.
It’ll be interesting if Trump enters the third stage of personal and historical literary development. Beginning at 13, young writers focus more on reality than their previous childish fantasies. A story or a book has to make some sort of sense. When I looked back at my 100-page kidnapping story, I was mortified; the police didn’t cease pursuit of victims in order to buy sundresses for the Florida heat. The third stage roughly corresponds with the Priestly and Rabbinic eras of Judaism, where esteemed rabbis wrote commentaries and legal analysis in order to remedy biblical inconsistencies.
Young writers between 13-15 are frequently embarrassed by their earlier stories. Why the hell would a ninja be in an ice castle in the first place? Shouldn’t there be some sort of backstory? Similarly, the Second Temple-era rabbis scrambled to make sense of the Torah by inventing characters such as Lilith to explain why God created woman twice. As a literate society, our trends in writing have shifted significantly over the past two millennia and over the human developmental span.
Except for Donald Trump, who’s still in the fifth-grade classroom putting a crayon up his nose and wondering if the ninja can summon a dragon to burn down the ice castle and then they’re gonna go to Europe because, well, okay, Europe’s really nice and I own property there, and I really like the Europeans, and I have a lot of friends in Europe.
Sarah Sullivan is a writer and dog mom in Arlington, VA. Her work has been published in Cargoes, Quail Bell, Ravishly, and Woman Around Town. She holds a B.A. in English from Hollins University and a Master's degree in sarcasm. She currently holds a job in an office with a lot of windows.