Ergativity in Trump White House Discourse

In a recent press conference on the resignation of Michael Flynn, Trump’s spokesperson, Sean Spicer, used the phrase “There is nothing that would conclude me that…”

There is something odd about the way this is formulated.

‘Conclude’ is a verb, like many in the English language, that hovers between transitive and intransitive status, but has a slightly different meaning in each case.

Transitive ‘conclude’ is more or less synonymous with ‘finish’, with extra emphasis on the finality of the process, or a ceremonial flourish. The two meanings may, of course, as is often the case, overlap.

Intransitive ‘conclude’ is more abstract. It can mean ‘draw a conclusion’ if the agent is human, or simply ‘end’ if the subject is inanimate, again, with slightly more emphasis than the near synonyms. Like other verbs of saying or thinking, ‘conclude’ can also be followed by a ‘that’ clause. Arguably, this should be construed as a transitive usage.

Linguists divide languages broadly into those that are ergative-absolutive (ergative for short) and those that are nominative-accusative (accusative for short), although this is by no means a rigid distinction. Most languages contain elements of both.

In an accusative language, the subject/agent of both an intransitive and a transitive verb share the same form or position in the sentence, while the object of a transitive verb has a distinct form or position. In ergative languages, the subject or agent of a transitive verb has a distinct form, while the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive one share the same properties.

It is generally the case that, in accusative languages, the object form is viewed as deviant, while the subject form deviates little from the root form. In ergative languages, the opposite tends to be the case: the agent of a transitive verb has a special form, while the object/ergative subject is akin to the root.

English is essentially an accusative language, although this has been eroded over time, as accusative endings, with the exception of some pronouns, have disappeared, and word order has become the main determinant of the relation between the subject and object of a verb.

Many linguists however have pointed out that there are many ergative features of English, including so-called ergative verbs, and that these may be growing in number in recent years. English may thus be going through a transition from a primarily accusative to a semi-ergative language.

Phrases such as

  1. The door closes.
  2. This car drives well.

suggest that there may be a shift towards using the pre-verbal position to indicate the object of an intransitively-construed transitive motion or action.

This, of course, is by no means a fully ergative form, but suggests that English may be drifting in that direction.

Remember that, in accusative languages, the object is regarded as deviant or subordinate (that is what declension means), while in ergative languages, it is the agent of a transitive verb that is viewed as a deviation from the norm of an otherwise static peaceful impersonal world. It is perhaps no coincidence that most ergative languages are very ancient (e.g. Sumerian) or have very ancient roots (e.g. Basque, Australian first nations languages). They stem from an age in which human agency played a much less important role than the timeless impersonal processes of the natural world.

Let us go back to Sean Spicer and try to unpack the underlying unconscious meaning of his words. I deliberately leave the content of the ‘that’ clause blank; it matters little to the argument I am presenting here, which concerns more the way supposedly factual statements are now being framed and is relevant to the current debate about ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’.

First of all (although this is not the most important point), note how clipped the phrase is. Grammatical purists, who turn their noses up at Twitter and TV, would argue that it should read “There is nothing that would lead me to the conclusion that…” or more succinct “Nothing would lead me to the conclusion that…”

But neither of these formulations works on Twitter or TV. The first is two wordy; an impatient TV sound-bite listener or keystroke-stingy online reader is already bored by the time we arrive at the second ‘that’. The second sounds negative from the start, with nothing as the subject of the verb. “There is” tempers “nothing”, establishing a more positive tone.

Next note the deviant use of the ‘indirect object’ “conclude me”. This is an extension of ‘tells me’ etc. but also, perhaps more importantly, marks a clear contrast with the bald absolute “I conclude…” Spicer of course is well aware that his function is that of a ‘spokesperson.’ He is supposed to avoid the first person singular, but there is no reason not to use “the president” or “the administration” as the agent of the sentence.

The formulation thus pushes away any kind of agency or responsibility. The conclusion ergatively drives itself.

Such a formulation allows for a lot of wiggle room. Challenged as to the veracity of the statement, Spicer can fall back on a “But I didn’t say that….” Nor does he have to appeal to some abstract agency “the American people,” “we”, “God” or even his boss.

We see the same phenomenon in Trump’s thumpingly repeated slogan “Make America great again!”

This could be construed as an imperative exhortation, but makes little sense if read that way. Neither does it fill the zero subject place with an individual or collective subject. Despite Trump’s obvious narcissistic tendencies, his discourse is strewn with this kind of ergative-minded abstract subterfuge. You could be forgiven for thinking that his favorite pronoun is “I”. In fact he more often uses ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘that’, or, given his penchant for the brevity of Twitter, simply zero. The ingenuousness and the sense of responsibility conveyed by Obama’s “Yes we can,” is instantly undermined.

Ergative language is fundamentally alienating and fetishizing in the Marxist sense. The door which closes is either closed by someone, blown by the wind, or programmed to do so. A car drives well because thousands of workers and designers and engineers have labored to manufacture it.

There is no invisible hand, only the hands of thousands and millions of agents. Trump with his small lily-white hands that have never fixed bricks in mortar themselves can perhaps be forgiven for not understanding that.