September 26, 2006

The comma was really a dog whistle

That's the theory of Ian Welch at The Agonist. According to him, when President Bush said that the Iraq war would "look just like a comma" to future historians, he wasn't using a creative and unexpected metaphor-- he was evoking a well-known proverb that urges steadfastness, "Never put a period where God has put a comma."

This being Language Log, of course we're going to check the numbers. And there are 440,000 Google hits for {period God comma}, mostly indeed variants of this expression:

Don't put a period where God has put a comma.
Never place a period where God has placed a comma.
If we stop there we are placing a period where God has placed a comma.
Never put a period, where God has put a comma.
Don't put a period where God puts a comma.
Don't put a period where God put a comma.
Don't place a period where God intended a comma.
God’s period is what allows our lives to have commas.
...we must be alert to the caution Gracie Allen left us not to put periods where God has put commas.
Today’s Bible stories are both about God putting a commas where humans might be tempted to put periods

Ian Lynch "on behalf of the Commission on Communication, Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ" has developed a version of this phrase into a "series of Lenten litanies", under the title "Ellipses and Commas; A Punctuated Lenten Journey":

The comma as a symbol of this campaign comes from the quote by Gracie Allen, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” The concept of this series is to slowly build this complete sentence through the seven Sundays of Lent and Easter.

And this sermon by Larry Reimer, dated May 7, 2006, reviews the whole story:

About five years ago our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, was looking for a phrase to define itself. They found the perfect words from Gracie Allen, the wife and comic partner of comedian George Burns.

Gracie Allen was a brilliant and perceptive woman. She left a message in her papers to be discovered by her husband after her death that has become the motto for the United Church of Christ: “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”

Gracie was encouraging George to remember that life had many chapters. George was 68 when Gracie died. Rather than place a period after his career, Burns went on to star in a number of movies, including playing God, twice. He even headlined at Gator Growl in the 1970’s. He died at age 100, having lived the life of the comma.

Way back when the Pilgrims sailed from Holland to the new world on the Mayflower, their pastor John Robinson, who was forbidden to go with them, sent them off with another momentous phrase, “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word,” a forerunner of the comma.

The Pilgrims became the Congregational Church. The Congregational Church merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957 to become the United Church of Christ. Today, we in the United Church of Christ believe that God is still speaking. We gather as a church as our compact says, “to learn from our religious heritage, yet to grow by seeking new dimensions of truth.” William Sloane Coffin, Jr. said “Hell is truth seen too late.”

In grammar, a period is a place where a thought stops dead. A comma is a pause to take a breath and then pick up the thought again.

We pride ourselves here at UCG on being people of the comma. We love our own motto, “It’s not like this every Sunday!” which we say every Sunday. But pride, as they say, goeth before the fall. We can become a little full of ourselves about our wonderful comma-ness.

Wise words. Except for the part about thought stopping dead. I mean, that's going to make it hard to compose a coherent paragraph, not to speak of a whole sermon.

Anyhow, Ian Welch is obviously right about the source of President Bush's comma, and Ken Layne was wrong. It was religion, not drugs.

But why is this allusion a "dog whistle"? Welch argues that President Bush

is constantly littering his speeches with code words and phrases meant for the religious right. Other people don't hear them, but they do, and most of the time it allows Bush both to say what those who aren't evangelical or born again want to hear, while still reassuring the religious right wants to hear.

For example, one of the most famous episodes of this was Bush's reference in the 2004 debates to the Dred Scott decision. Most people couldn't figure out what the heck he was talking about - it seemed like a non-sequitur. But, as Paperwight pointed out at the time, anti-abortion activists see themselves as similar to anti-slavery activists. And they take heart that eventually Dred Scott v. Sandford was overthrown. [...]

The other name for this is dog whistle politics. When you blow a dog whistle humans can't hear it, but the dogs sure can. It's a pitch higher than humans can hear. When you speak in code like this, most of the time the only people who hear and understand what you just said are the intended group, who have an understanding of the world and a use of words that is not shared by the majority of the population. So it allows you to send out two messages at once - one pitched for the majority of Americans, the other pitched for a subgroup. This goes on all the time, and usually it isn't caught - most people don't hear it, and the media is made up of people who can't make the connections because they don't belong to these subgroups. So they can't point out the subtext either.

It's very effective, and it's one reason why Bush still has his hard core of support - he's constantly reassuring them, at a pitch the rest of us can't hear.

It seems to me that this is true on one level, and profoundly unfair on another. We all "constantly litter" our speech and writing with messages that will be fully received only by those who share our verbal and conceptual associations. But we don't usually do this in order to create a Straussian double message, an esoteric wolf in an exoteric sheepskin. We do this because we can't help it, it's how language works, and also how thought works.

New ideas and new discourses are built out of fragments of old ones. As a result, almost everything that we say or write is a "dog whistle": even if the basic meaning is clear to everyone, some people will pick up on implications that are lost to others. And that's just as true for Hilary Clinton -- and for Ian Welch, and for Ken Layne, and for me -- as it is for George W. Bush. At least once a week, I get an email from someone who has seriously misunderstood something that I wrote, not because I expressed it badly (well, that happens a lot, too), but because they missed an association or an allusion, or because they made an association or saw an allusion that I never intended.

The lesson to draw from this episode is not that our president is using his word choices to send coded messages, but that that people with different life experiences sometimes receive very different messages from the same text. In the context of the president's answer to Wolf Blitzer's question about Iraq, "comma" was either a reassuringly familiar cliché for steadfastness, or an unexpected, bizarre and inappropriate metaphor -- depending on how you've been spending your Sundays over the past five years.

[Comma tip from Edward Wilford]

[Update -- Rob Sears writes:

Interesting post -- but there is much more to dog whistle politics. The point is that Bush knows that explicitly religious references will cause a fuss among certain audiences (us Europeans will think he is even less rational than we already do, for instance), and so he or his advisors deliberately find ways to get across implications to their base, that will be lost on others. The basis of the charge is that it cannot be coincidence that so many of Bush's religious reference are shrouded. If he spoke naturally, the ratio of explicit to hidden religious invocations would be much higher. (Obviously, it would be a big job to prove this.) So when you say:

"As a result, almost everything that we say or write is a "dog whistle": even if the basic meaning is clear to everyone, some people will pick up on implications that are lost to others. And that's just as true for Hilary Clinton -- and for Ian Welch, and for Ken Layne, and for me -- as it is for George W. Bush. " is missing the point, at least for you, I'm sure, and maybe for the others. You are not deliberately concealing your meaning from a particular group of readers, as Bush is doing from Godless types. If a particular group doesn't get something, that is not because you were deliberately trying to keep something secret from them. You are trying to be clear, not to sneak something past readers.

I hope this distinction is clear, even if the charge against Bush remains unproven.

But if you believe that President Bush chose the word "comma" in this case in order to send a coded message to evangelical Christians, you're giving him credit for a degree of linguistic subtlety that is, let's say, in conflict with the current stereotype. And Kenny Easwaran observes that "religious" doesn't mean ""right(-wing)":

It seems to me very improbable that Bush was referring to the phrase "Never put a period where God has put a comma" as a secret reference for the religious right. This is primarily because that phrase is associated with the United Church of Christ, which as far as I can tell is part of the religious left. We've got their churches all around Berkeley (or at least, one very big one right near campus), and I always took their motto to mean that the Bible is not the complete source of divine law, but that it changes to reflect changing sensibilities over time. I've always imagined this is one of the reasons the UCC supports gay marriage. A very unlikely audience for Bush to be targeting indeed.

I agree that this makes it seem even less likely that the word was consciously intended as "dog whistle" message. But Google provides some reason to the think that the "comma" meme has spread beyond the UCC, and it does seem plausible that some version of this saying was in the president's mind when he chose this phrasing, instead of calling Iraq a "bump in the road" or any of the other commonplace phrases for a temporary problem.]

[John Brewer adds some depth to the discussion:

I was intrigued by your post on the possible religious subtext of the "comma" remark, but am left a bit uncertain as to who the dog-whistle-detectors might think the President was signaling to. I would think if you asked most scholars of the contemporary American religious scene to name the major Christian denomination that had the least in common with the so-called Religious Right, the United Church of Christ would probably be the consensus pick, at least if the Unitarians were excluded due to lack of self-identification as Christian. (The UCC's most recent walk-on role in national politics is as the group Howard Dean joined after he left the Episcopal Church due to a dispute over a bicycle path.) Indeed, the UCC seems to use the comma slogan as a way of distinguishing itself in the marketplace from more traditional Christians, who actually believe they are in possession of the capital-T Truth followed by a full-stop period. Like the sequence of periods in God said it. I believe it. That settles it. By contrast, the UCC approach might be caricatured by its opponents, if they were given to linguification, as having lots of commas: God is said to have said it, but it strikes me as outdated, embarrassing, and in conflict with the teachings of the New York Times, so I'm eager to hear a rationale for why it's not applicable to me. Others might phrase that less pejoratively, but the point is not a point about steadfastness, but about continuing revelation, or at least an ecclesiastical analogue to a Whiggish and/or Hegelian theory of history.

Now it's certainly possible that the comma/period contrast is also used in an entirely different way in evangelical circles which might be more appropriately linked to the Religious Right. I haven't looked into the context of your other Google results. Like the American political right, the American RR is subject to caricature as an interesting melange of doom-and-gloom condemnation of sin and decadence, on the one hand, and upbeat motivational-speaker hokum, on the other, and this could be an example of the latter. But from that perspective (to beat the metaphor into the ground), the hope that we're still in the middle of the sentence and the difficult present circumstances may improve before the sentence ends would be based on the faith that God's previously uttered Word has been punctuated with a definitive period guaranteeing that it will not be contradicted by a subsequent clause. "God's period is what allows our life to have commas," from your search results, makes that point. But that's not the UCC's point.


[And Ben Zimmer adds some historical perspective:

The Youth's Companion, July 31, 1919, p. 412:
Don't get to thinking in ultimate terms too quickly about life, my dear. There are not so many finalities in life as you young folks think. Remember the old saying, "Man's periods are God's commas."


[Josh Jensen writes:

I enjoyed the comma and dog whistle post -- and the post-scripts. My own observations:

A very conservative evangelical, I would never have associated Bush's 'comma' reference with the period/comma saying, though I don't doubt that one of his speech writers got the idea there. Perhaps I'll take the quotation to a seminary class tomorrow (a Greek class, likely to have generally well-educated Evangelicals in it) and then to work (a Christian adoption agency) to find out whether anyone hears the whistle. (The experiment may only prove that we're all the wrong kind of Evangelical, though I suspect that we all voted for Bush.)

So I think you're right to be reluctant in accepting the dog whistle theory. No doubt Bush talks in certain ways because of his Evangelical roots (and his speechwriters'), and no doubt he's at least sometimes careful to restrain himself from making specifically Christian references. But there have to be limits to the value of judging an author's or speaker's secret agenda based on his coded allusions (one thinks of the ink spilled to prove that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic trying to give courage to fellow Catholics). My hunch is that very few people -- even committed and well-educated ideologues -- pick up on subtle allusions in speeches, and only journalists (and politicians' ideological opponents) actually read political speeches after they've been transcribed. (Arguably, journalists don't read the speeches either, but only search the texts for striking metaphors and shocking claims that can be excerpted for article leads.)

(Josh reports back on what he found here.)]

[Jack Collins points out that God dictated or inspired little or no punctuation in the original biblical texts:

From the perspective of a religion student, I always found the "where God put a comma" slogan curious, since, of course, in the original Hebrew and Greek, the Bible texts had no punctuation to speak of, and that the current versification and punctuation, if in the critical editions of the original language texts, are the result of later traditions. Indeed, the idea of commas and periods is kind of alien to Biblical Hebrew, where verbless clauses often stand on their own and the boundaries between sentences are blurred. Even the Masoretic pointing (which is medieval in origin) doesn't have a clear equivalent to commas and periods, instead using a system of accents, pauses and vowel changes to indicate conjunction and disjunction between words and clauses.

But Daphna Shezaf observes that things are different in modern Hebrew usage:

I thought you would like to know that for modern Hebrew speaker, there's nothing odd about Bush comma metaphor. We use comma quite a lot to designate small things, or things of no or little significance. My dictionary dates this use back to the 1950's literature, which is almost ancient history for modern Hebrew. Specifically, some form of "all this will just be a comma in history books", is a rather common idiom (Googling it gave about 100 results, which is a lot considering the number of Hebrew web pages and the difficulties that Hebrew morphology and spelling pose on searching).

In fact, this meaning of "comma" is so natural for me, that I was not sure there wasn't some of "double pun" I was missing in all your posts on the subject. But now I have consulted a friend who is native English speaker. He suggested this is either a very spooky coincidence, or Bush has linguistically blew his cover: he must indeed be an undercover Mossad operative, after all.

The plot thickens.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 26, 2006 06:53 AM