09/04/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

You Didn't Say That

Ask most people, and they believe they speak in full, grammatical sentences all the time, mellifluously transitioning from one topic to another. Linguists, however, have demonstrated otherwise.

Our everyday speech is littered with "ums" and "ahs", spoonerisms, repetitions and mixed-up word orders. It's testament to the versatility of language that we manage to make any sense of each other at all. In conversation, this linguistic detritus doesn't matter much. But in political speeches, it can be deadly.

Witness the opprobrium surrounding President Obama's now-infamous phrase -- "you didn't build that" -- out of which Republicans made a giant stack of political hay at last week's convention. Obama was promptly set atop the stack, and a fire lit underneath. (Metaphorically, of course: The president did not attend, leaving an embittered Clint Eastwood to converse with an empty chair).

The remark was, Republicans thundered, a Freudian slip that betrayed Obama's inner-Marxist. They probably don't really believe this, but Cold War slurs still make for very hot buttons. Being called a Marxist in America has the same illocutionary force as being called a "genocidal pedophile" anywhere else in the English-speaking world. There is a certain irony at Republicans castigating the speech of others. Right-wing politicians and pundits -- from Rush to Bush to Romney -- have an uncanny capacity for inappropriate and often offensive outbursts.

The left, for their part, have mounted several, mostly pusillanimous, defenses: It was, variously, ill-chosen, artless, or clumsy. The left aren't a whole lot better with language than the right. They're perhaps not as prone to saying the wrong thing, but - as the linguist (and committed progressive) George Lakoff points out -- that is because they are usually too nervous to manage to say very much of anything at all. They are, however, masters of non-verbal communication: hand-wringing, for example.

But linguistic analysis gives us an alternative, more scientific reading. Here are the offending four words contextualized in the other fourteen seconds of speech:

"Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business [pause] that [pause] you didn't build that. [pause] Somebody else [pause] made that happen [pause]."

Pauses are usually omitted in media transcripts, but they are of vital significance to linguists. Obama's first pause is almost one full second in length. That might not sound a lot, but try it in conversation. English-speakers are uncomfortable with this much silence. If it isn't done for dramatic effect, it signals something has gone awry. (This is culturally-specific: Swedish-speakers, in contrast, will happily halt for minutes on end, without collapsing into paroxysms of awkwardness).

Obama's pause indicates he is hearing the inner voice, familiar to us all, uttering the worst expletive in his vocabulary. "If you've got a business" wasn't supposed to come next. "Somebody else built that" -- referring to infrastructure -- should be next; the third of three sentences beginning with "somebody else." The triplicate is ubiquitous in political speech, and usually adeptly deployed by Obama.

At this point, Obama attempts what linguists call a "repair," with a stray "that," apropos of nothing. Repairs are what speakers do effortlessly in everyday conversation: the hesitations, false starts and unfinished sentences as we try to get our derailed trains of thought back on track.

Another pause: a heartbeat in real-time, but a yawning chasm in speech. Then, the killer: "You didn't build that." It's a further attempt at a repair, but it just makes things worse. Another pause. "Somebody else... ", and another painful, second-long pause, before he meekly proffers "made that happen." By now, the inner voice has abandoned cursing and resorted to violence. Obama is internally kicking himself.

Repairs in everyday conversation resume normal transmission in talk. We do it without much thought, and -- save for a raised eyebrow - with few dire consequences. In political speech, however, attempts at repair can have precisely the opposite effect, and inflict near-fatal damage. They are not forgiven, and still less forgotten, especially when taken out of context and endlessly replayed.

Most reasonable people can infer that Obama didn't actually mean that nobody built their own businesses. Quite sensibly, he meant that nobody on their own builds roads or bridges or schools.

But, as Republicans point out with undisguised schadenfreude: He didn't say that.