Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Constitution vs. Cooperation. The case of syntax and Oath of Office.

Interesting linguistic phenomenon during Barack Obama's swearing-in this morning. A few blunders (including one later in Obama's Inaugural Speech, where he states that 44 people have taken this oath previously – actually, only 43 have, since Grover Cleveland was president twice, in non-consecutive terms). This post is about the the interesting exchange between the two participants in this 43rd delivery of the Speech Act we call "Oath of Office."

The official 35-word oath is written in Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution as follows:
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Here is a shallow transcription of the oath, as stated this morning (delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts to Barack Hussein Obama at 12:00 pm, January 20th, 2009):
  1. Roberts: I, Barack Hussein Obama [do solemnly swear]
  2. Obama: [I, Barack]
  3. Obama: I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.
  4. Roberts: That I will..execute the office of President of to the United States faithfully.
  5. Obama: That I will execute... (nods to Roberts)
  6. Roberts: the off– faithfully the Pres– office of President [of the United States.]
  7. Obama: [the office of President] of the United States faithfully.
  8. Roberts: And will to the best of my ability.
  9. Obama: I will to the best of my ability.
  10. Roberts: Preserve, protect, and defend, the constitution of the United States.
  11. Obama: Preserve, protect, and defend, the constitution of the United States.
  12. Roberts: So help you God?
  13. Obama: So help me God.
  14. Roberts: Congratulations Mr. President.
*Brackets "[ ]" represent overlapping speech. Parenthesis represent paralinguistic cues. Periods "." represent pauses. Hyphens "–" represent truncated speech. Text in red represents a change made to the transcription (after the original post timestamp).*

The last 4 words "So help me God" are not part of the constitutional oath, and therefore optional. I find this interesting because this is also signaled with a change in deixis by Roberts. He asks Obama "So help you God," rather than "So help me God," a change in which Roberts is no longer requesting Obama to repeat his words, but rather asking him a direct question.

Also, more noticeable, is the syntactic fumbles by Roberts in delivering the words for Obama to repeat. The constitutional oath is worded as "faithfully execute the office..." (adverb+VP), not "execute the office of President of the United States faithfully" (VP + adverb). Both are understandable and grammatically allowable in English, but have slightly different connotations, especially when delivered in this social context. The former is expected; the latter is marked.

The delivery of the "unconstitutional" word ordering prompted Obama to momentarily pause immediately after repeating "That I will execute." He nods to Roberts, now providing him with both linguistic and paralinguistic cues to perform a repair. Roberts initially misinterprets these cues as a repair request from Obama to hear the next words as he (Roberts) initially delivered them. We see this in line #6, starting with "the off–." However, Roberts immediately realizes his (second) error, and now understands that "faithfully" was what was requested, not the remaining sentence as he had previously stated it in line #4. However, he errs again in his attempt to deliver the proper constitutional ordering. Instead of giving Obama the proper words to repeat, "faithfully execute the office of...," he misspeaks by saying, "faithfully the Pres–." He realizes this and stops himself. We're on error number three now, for those keeping track. His final repair attempt results in the end of line #6, where Roberts skips the troubling adverb+verb combo, and supplies the proper end of the sentence, sans "faithfully."

Roberts' efforts are not in vain however. Even though his repairs were further botched in the surface representations, the intent to repair was conveyed to Barack Obama.

It is not actually required by the Speech Act of oath-giving that the words are repeated verbatim, or the conversational exchange go smoothly, for the oath to be considered valid. This happens at weddings all the time, and the show does go on. The intent is understood, and the Speech Act is honored as accomplishing what it intended to accomplish.

It is important however that Obama say the oath, regardless if it was delivered to him correctly. Interestingly, he has a choice now in the manner in which to say it. He can go with the constitutional version (adverb + verb phrase), or with Roberts' version (verb phrase + adverb). The former is correct, the latter is most cooperative. He can't have both.

It is interesting to see that even at the most basic level of simple conversational exchange, we see three traits emerge in our new President: leadership, cooperation, and quick thinking under pressure. Obama understood Roberts' error and allowed him to gracefully correct himself. But when he heard Roberts' repeated failed attempts to provide the proper words, Obama took charge of the situation and spoke the necessary phrase to continue with the Speech Act. That the Speech Act go on could easily be considered the priority at this point. It is important to note that, for whatever reason, Obama carried on in a way that was the most cooperative, choosing the phrasing that would align himself with Roberts, rather than slighting him.

There are a few other interesting phenomenon going on in this simple dialogue, but I am ready to enjoy the day.

If you need more wholesome oathy goodness, here is the latest at the Inuagural Blog, from the office of our new President, Barack Obama. Also, change.gov is closing up shop and coming to the whitehouse. Dot gov.

(My sincere apologies for all the bad puns in the previous paragraph.)
There is a lot to look at here and we welcome any and all comments on this post. Thanks!
keywords not in post: critical discourse analysis, CDA, Austin, Searle, speech act theory, blunder, screwup, mistake, swear, swearing, politics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, constatives, perlocutionary, pledge, promise, amendment, felicity conditions, conversational turn, syntax, adverbial, clause, inauguration.
*Update: Jan. 21, 2009, 11:25 am. Upon listening to the audio again this morning, I realize that my initial transcription of the swearing-in ceremony contained an error. In line #4, Roberts actually says "to" instead of the proper word "of". I have corrected this in the transcription portion of this post, and noted the change in the reference key below it.


Amber said...

Well done, you! I read it, avidly. ;)

Eric Murphy said...

Nice to read such a fine analysis, regardless of my political orientations.


Please keep on,


Anonymous said...

thanks for the informative article. Especially helpful to non-natives who saw something going on but couldn´t decipher what it was..
best wishes


Anonymous said...

Do you have any evidence for your claim that the words of the Oath need not be stated correctly or in order in order to take effect?

If not, why then is the oath in Article 2, Section 1 the only Oath in the constitution with quotation marks - what are the quotation marks for? The Oaths in Article VI, for example, do not have any quotation marks. (See this post for more detail).

It seems to me a more persuasive interpretation of the words of the Constitution are that they mean what they say: the Oath must be given exactly as quoted in the Constitution. Because Obama did not take the Oath as specified, how can he be said to have fulfilled his duty under Article 2, Section 1?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Well, Anonymous #2, it might seem that way to you, but clearly it doesn't to anyone who actually knows anything about it - like the SCOTUS, or the Congress, or the GOP leaders.

Besides, if it really did matter that the magic words be said exactly as written, he could say them at any time.

Kim W. said...

I'm not sure that the constitution states that the oath must be delivered verbatim for the Felicity Conditions of this Speech Act to be considered "met". In other words, I think the Felicity Conditions of oath-taking are met because the participants involved in the act have the authority to do so, this authority is recognized as such, and the ritual is performed according to procedure. Of course, it is this last part, "the procedure," that is considered troubling to many. This is much trickier than one realizes, because we simply can't go with the literal interpretation of 'what happened', but must account for the pragmatic implications of 'what happened'; this involves understanding of the communicative exchange in a sociolinguistic context.

This type of blunder also often happens with wedding vows...the bride or groom says "I will" instead of "I do". We consider the marriage valid. Another example is 'the pinky swear' or 'hand shake' in place of "I promise" or "I bet you." There are also many instances where the surface representation of the Speech Act is socially conventionalized to be understood as performing the action of the constative that it represents. For example, we understand "I'm sorry" to be a legitimate stand in for "I apologize".

Taking these pragmatic implications into account is extremely important. However, on the literal side of things, it can also be argued that the underlying syntactic representations of each version of the "faithfully" line are identical. The meaning of the original phrase has not been altered or subverted in any way.

Honestly, this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this topic. There are many unanswered questions, but I'm sure it is exactly this event that will raise awareness about what the requirements are, and what needs to happen to quell any doubts in the minds of the people in America that Barack Obama is indeed our President. For me, this oath holds. But if the constitution or a court decides otherwise, then I am sure there will be a second swearing in, or whatever it takes to symbolically "back-date" the Presidency.

I was actually under the impression that the constitution stated that Obama was automatically the President at noon, and that the swearing-in was literally a formality to 'seal the deal'. There is a good discussion about this point over at Ask.Metafilter. Additionally, there's a constitutional lawyer or two out there who says that heremembers when Biden was President.

Kim W. said...

All that said, I have no idea about the quotes either.

Fabrizio said...

i just heard on BBC Wolrd News that Obama took the oath again in the White House, just in case somebody had some problems about the first version