Red Talk, Blue Talk

Exploring the political dialects of a fractured nation

By Katie Botkin


istorically, dialect has been tied to place. People in one town spoke slightly differently than people in the next town, and you could tell where someone was from pretty specifically by their choice of words, how they used them, their accent, and so on.


With globalization, this has lessened considerably. However, we are seeing different kinds of dialects based on subcultures, and specifically based on political affiliation. You see it in keywords that politicians use, and more obviously in how in-groups talk to each other and about each other. Technology has allowed users to isolate themselves not in place, but in ideology, and this in turn creates its own isolated dialects. It represents an evolution in language. And obviously, location-based dialects still exist, but online, someone from California will be able to speak with a New Yorker of the same political persuasion more seamlessly than either of them will be able to talk to someone who lives next door but has an opposite political view.

This has interesting implications for the translation industry, and particularly for machine translation (MT). It would be difficult to create a tool to automate widespread data collection of dialects that are this specific — and this might matter if you’re trying not to alienate certain audiences.

Computational linguistics can be of limited use with very nuanced semantic studies — natural language processing (NLP) experts worry about MT accuracy. “From an NLP perspective, it’s a matter of semantics, and the challenge is context,” said John Tinsley, managing director of Iconic Translation. “From an MT perspective, the same idea would follow but with a whole additional challenge — whether the same nuance is captured in the target language, or whether this is particular to the US.”

On a certain level, however, computational dialect study is already happening. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently analyzed over 86 million YouTube comments to track how people of different political affiliations use different words to refer to the same thing, such as “liberal” verus the derogatory “libtard.” Although the paper considers these words “translatable” pairs, they certainly are not in any traditional sense.

In a different vein, the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda (ComProp) project has been tracking the rise of “computational propaganda” since 2012. The project “includes analysis of how tools like social media bots are used to manipulate public opinion,” and estimates that over 40 countries, and counting, have deployed some type of political bot. Russia has used social media very effectively, most notably in the 2016 and 2020 US elections, but it isn’t alone. Digital propaganda has been influencing political opinion from Catalan to the UK. From a linguistic perspective, the use of political NLP bots may actually be shaping how language is evolving — the repetitive, grammatically-poor draconian style of partisan social media discourse is well-suited to chatbots. According to ComProp researchers, Russia-based RT, the best-funded disinformation organization in the world, has a specific goal to cause chaos and in-fighting in other nations. This has extended to the way the org employs specific terms and ideas.

Whatever the causes, in the United States, conservatives and liberals have splintered into factions that speak different languages, in an almost literal sense — and it seems to be a trend that is spilling over into the rest of the world as well. Now more than ever, in perhaps the most tense presidential election the country has ever seen, there are certain words and phrases each political group uses that are foreign to the other. Many so-called “Antifa” posters circulating around the internet in mid-2020 were easily spotted as fake for this reason. One such fake, for example, called for violence, offered free vegan food, used a word considered a slur in leftist circles, and asterisked out most of a curse word (f***).

Perhaps most confusingly, conservatives and liberals sometimes use the same words to mean opposite things. Although they use the same dictionaries — standard US English — the context and subtext of the words are vastly different. Conservatives use words to speak about top-down authoritarianism and duty, and liberals use the same words to talk about individual self-determination.

Consider the word “sovereign,” for example. Conservative Christians often say that “God is sovereign,” and leftists talk about their “sovereign bodies” during meditation retreats. Conservatives tend to see sovereignty as being handed down to the chosen people; liberals talk about sovereignty as belonging to indigenous nations, or to individuals.

Specific word usage reflects other epistemology-level ideas about the world, too. Recently, a debate sprung up on a private individual’s social media page about the meaning of the word “privilege.” One conservative argued that poor white people have no privilege. How could they? They don’t have any of the extras of the upper classes. “Privilege doesn’t mean the lack of oppression,” she said. But to leftists, that’s exactly what it means — the baseline isn’t what’s considered normal, it’s whatever is at the very bottom. Conservatives draw the baseline at more of a social average, and it’s only if you pass that line that they’d use the word “privilege.”

Additionally, words like “antifascist,” “power,” “obedience,” “constitutional” and even “love” are used differently in different circles. “Thug” might be code for “Black guy” or it might — somewhat tongue in cheek — mean “police in riot gear.” “Anarchist” might mean “violent looter” or “person who feeds the homeless,” depending on who you ask.

The word “violence” itself means different things to different groups of people. “We practice non-violence” is likely to proceed different ideas, depending on your political leanings. Choose your own adventure:

Far right: “… only if we’re cucks.”

Traditional conservative: “… until you push us too far.”

Traditional liberal: “… because love is always the answer.”

Far left: “… because dismantling the tools of oppression is non-violence.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “cuck,” it’s short for “cuckold”; it’s a fetish term that was adopted by the right and entered the mainstream with the 2016 US election.

Another linguistic example comes from the claim that “if you don’t love our country and our freedom, you’re a traitor and don’t deserve to be here.”

Now, of course, everyone loves freedom — saying “you don’t love freedom” is akin to saying “you don’t love oxygen.” However, in this context, “Freedom” is a stand-in word for “loyalty,” or perhaps “the previous amount of people who have been killed overseas fighting in our uniforms, and the ones who will probably die if we deploy more of them.” And this is the antithesis of how the word is used in leftist circles. If we were going to write accurate definitions for how the different groups use the words, it would be something like this:

Freedom (conservative)

  • Under constant threat of being lost if the other party wins.
  • Gained by soldiers fighting overseas.
  • Ingrained in American ideology since the inception of America.
  • Associated with sacrifice, loyalty, and death.

Freedom (liberal)

  • Your innate state of being.
  • Gained primarily by domestic struggle against oppression: civil rights, and literal emancipation.
  • More present now for a wider variety of people than in 1776.
  • Associated with self-expression and self-determination.

In a nutshell, “Freedom is won by heroes” conjures up different images in the minds of conservatives and liberals — either a bloody Marine charging into battle, or someone like Rosa Parks, refusing to budge.

Which is more historically accurate? Well, traditionally, freedom included freedom of thought. For over a thousand years, dating back to when it was pronounced “freodom,” the word referred to self-determination, free will. It is highly unusual for a word to maintain such a strong single definition for a millennium, and in the Old English form we see the emancipation that centuries of slaves dreamed of.

There are long lists of words that have opposite nuances in different contexts. Words about values, such as “perfect” and “love,” and political scare-words like “socialism”:

Perfect (conservative)

  • No one is actually perfect.
  • Associated with figures rather than universal standards.
  • Jesus said it, so it’s perfect. Trump said it, so it’s perfect.

Perfect (liberal)

  • Everyone is actually perfect.
  • Associated with efforts to improve.
  • Buddha taught us to “see the perfection” in others.

Love (conservative)

  • Of country, God, and family.
  • Is required for some authority figures.

Love (liberal)

  • Is for the people you choose.
  • Means being able to say no and does not exist if it’s demanded.

Socialism (conservative)

  • Bad.
  • Practiced exclusively by the Soviet Union, the Nazi party and other failed states.
  • Stealing opportunity from anyone who works hard.

Socialism (liberal)

  • Not bad.
  • Practiced by countries such as Denmark and Sweden.
  • Promotes equal opportunity for everyone.

Right-leaning NLP bots have echoed conservative talking points with a degree of credibility that is difficult to overstate. One ComProp research paper concluded that political bots are influencing political discource, particularly on the right. Bots tweeted hastags such as #lockherup and #MAGA, and not infrequently, got re-tweeted by real conservatives on Twitter. These bot networks were sophisticated enough that researchers concluded there was a relatively high level of “coordination and strategic organization among Trump-related bot activity,” but stated that this was not true of leftist bots.

This may be because it’s relatively simple to write copy playing to the idea that freedom is under constant threat of being lost. “These Trump supporters were very easily influenced,” said a woman styling herself as Empress Delfina and charging Trump supporters $1.99 a minute to chant slogans. “They like to chant—that’s part of the whole programming,” she told The Daily Beast, saying her clients like being told what to think.

It’s more difficult, though, to create convincing political copy celebrating freedom as an innate state of being. 

Katie Botkin is the Editor-in-Chief of MultiLingual magazine. She grew up in a deeply religious US microculture, and has taught English on three continents.


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