Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Chromatic relativity and contrastive focus

From today’s New York Times coverage of the Canadian election:

“The key to understanding Stephen Harper is his determination to establish the Conservative Party as the dominant party in Canada,” said Michael Bliss, a historian. “He wants to gradually shift the shade of government from red to blue.” In Canada, the Conservatives are blue.

What is striking about the final sentence in the excerpt above—apart from its oddly terse, field-guide–like tone—is its economical handling of the implicit contrast with American political color terminology. An American audience needs the final sentence above not just because it knows nothing of Canadian political color associations, but because those associations are exactly the opposite of what they are in the US. The swift cultural entrenchment of red–blue color-coding in American politics that has taken place since the 2000 presidential election (and the associated brief reign of Tim Russert’s whiteboard) makes Michael Bliss’s final comment above seem like a misstatement or a typo before we arrive at the final explanatory sentence.

It is no accident, then, that the final sentence begins with the prepositional phrase In Canada. This immediately establishes a contrast with the reader’s location and paves the way for the contrastive focus to come. Consider, for comparison, the following reformulation: The Canadian Conservative Party’s official color is blue. This gets the facts right, but does not invite the contrast with American political color terminology that the original does. In the reformulation, a crucial part of the explanation is missing; as a result, the sentence is far more awkward.

The contrastive focus itself, with its associated prosodic emphasis, falls most naturally on the adjective, blue. That is, the implicit contrast seems to be with a sentence like In America, the conservatives are red (this despite the fact that “the conservatives” is not the name of any American political party). But the focus could instead fall on the subject, the Conservatives; the implicit contrast then would be with the sentence In America, the Democrats are blue. Even if the first option is the preferred one, the availability of the second indicates that there are two questions under discussion: “What color are the Conservatives?” and “Who is blue?” The first arises from the mention of politically associated colors in the midst of a discussion of the Canadian Conservative Party. The second arises from the implicit contrast with American political colors, where blue has an altogether different association. The subtleties of linguistic information packaging are on full display in that odd short sentence.

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