Linguistically, why does it sound like Trump thinks Frederick Douglass is still alive?

Normally, when I write a blog post, I am pretty confident I know exactly what I'm talking about. I think of this as a place to communicate interesting findings or facts about linguistics to a lay audience. However, today something happened that I can't quite explain, but I want to discuss. Today, in honor of the first day of Black History Month, Trump gave a talk in which, among other things, he said:

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who's done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.

Plenty of people have already remarked that the phrasing sounds odd. It seems as though Trump is unaware that Frederick Douglass is not still alive. His press secretary made similar remarks:

I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made

My goal here is not to suss out whether Trump and Spicer know that Frederick Douglass is dead, and has been for over a century. Rather, I want to discuss why many people have the intuition from the above utterances that Trump and Spicer think Frederick Douglass is alive. The linguistosphere (note: not a real thing) is abuzz right now, and there's quite a bit of discussion on my facebook and twitter about this.

First thing's first: there's something about the fact that he used the present perfect instead of the simple past. That is, "Frederick Douglass has done an amazing job", not "Frederick Douglass did an amazing job." 

The present perfect indicates that something is completed, now. However, the fact that it's not morphologically past can't quite be it, because there are plenty of things that are over and done with and not likely to continue that can be marked this way. For instance:

I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox

There's something about the relation to the present, though, that makes it so it sounds very strange to use when discussing someone who died a century ago. But there's more to it. For instance, we could rebut what we take Trump's assumptions to be with:

Frederick Douglass has died (though). He did so in 1895.

Even that is odd, though. We'd expect something like "Frederick Douglass is dead."

Perhaps it's a requirement that the doer of the action marked with the present perfect be theoretically capable of still doing actions in the present? My current working hypothesis is that the subject of a (non-passive) clause marked with the present perfect requires a subject that exists in the present. For a passive, that goes out the window ("the plums which were in the icebox have been eaten"). 

BUT, and this is a huge caveat: I am very much not a semanticist.

I'm hoping for linguists who focus on semantics to weigh in, and will update here.  There's clearly some structural presupposition of relevance to the present that makes statements of historical fact sound bizarre with the present perfect. See for yourself, with other sentences:

Napoleon has taken over Europe.

Muhammad has had a vision.

Julius Caesar has been stabbed.

Cleopatra has taken a lover.

...Frederick Douglass has done an amazing job.

It sounds like he either has just now done an amazing job, or he's done an amazing job and will probably continue to do so.





©Taylor Jones 2016

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