January 16, 2006

We, We, Madame

I've been inspired by Dana Milbank's exercise in computational politico-linguistics over at the Washington Post -- "I, I, Sir: The Alito Hearings, Annotated" -- in which it's revealed that

... one thing united lawmakers on both sides: reverence for the first person. Republicans used the "I" word 1,180 times. Democrats used it 1,123 times. Combined, they used it well more than the nominee, who said "I" 1,907 times.

Milbank doesn't tell us whether the rate of uses of the first person singular was significantly more or less than we should have expected from the various parties in such confirmation hearings. But as I asked myself this question, it reminded me of a recently noteworthy first person (plural) pronoun: the errant reflexive "ourselves" that Geoff Pullum cited in President George W. Bush's 1/13/2006 press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Did an uncharacteristic focus on the diplomatic "we", due to the renewed emphasis on trans-Atlantic identity, lead W into over-reflexivization?

The problematic sentence came up in response to the first question from a reporter, and (according to the White House transcript) was:

The answer to your question is that Guantanamo is a necessary part of protecting the American people, and so long as the war on terror goes on, and so long as there's a threat, we will, inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm in a system that -- in which people will be treated humanely, and in which, ultimately, there is going to be a end, which is a legal system. [emphasis added]

That ourselves should have been us, since the subject of its clause is "people", not "we". Why might the president have spoken as if an extra "we" had snuck into the subect slot? Well, according to the transcript, Bush's opening remarks were 576 words long, and included

26 we
10 our
2 us

for a total of 38 first person plural pronouns, or a remarkable 6.6% of his word count. In particular, it's notable that 4.5% of these 576 words were the subject form "we". If we compare his opening remarks at the most recent three visits of heads of state, we find "we" percentages between 0.4% and 2.3%, or roughly a tenth to a half of the rate in his remarks welcoming Chancellor Merkel.

Specifically: when President Bush welcomed President Saleh of Yemen on 11/05/2005, his 167 words included

1 we
3 our
3 us

for 4.2% 1st plurals, and 0.5% "we". When he welcomed Prime Minister Berlusconi to the White House on 10/31/2005, his 171 words included

4 we
3 our

for 4.1% 1st plural pronouns, and 2.3% "we".

And when he welcomed President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority on 10/20/2005, his 928 words included

4 we
4 our

for a mere 0.9% 1st plural pronouns and 0.4% "we".

President Bush was not alone in focusing on "we" in the session with Chancellor Merkel. The 954 words of Merkel's (translated) opening remarks included

47 we
1 ourselves

for fully 4.9% "we".

It was a veritable festival of we-ity. It pegged the we-meter. So it's not surprising that a stray "we" crept into the empty subject slot of that relative clause.

Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, would have been more impressed by the literal, subversive interpretation: who indeed are those "that would do ourselves harm"? And these days, John McCain might agree with him.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 16, 2006 01:31 PM