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Language and Politics

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Language and Politics

Language can be used for several reasons, such as communicating ideas, creating art, and influencing others. Politicians often utilise language to influence and persuade the masses to think, behave, or vote in a certain way.

This article will examine the relationship between language and politics, look at typical language techniques politicians use, such as political rhetoric, and provide an example of how to analyse a political speech.

Relationship Between Language and Politics

The relationship between language and politics falls within the study of language and power, which recognises how others can use language to make us act, feel, or think in certain ways without force.

According to Wareing (1991), there are two main types of power; instrumental and influential.1

  • Instrumental power = authoritative power, e.g., the Queen has authoritative power over the United Kingdom; she doesn't need to convince anyone of her power.

  • Influential power = When individuals or organisations try to gain power over others by influencing their thoughts and behaviours. E.g. advertising companies try to gain power over people's buying habits by influencing their thoughts.

Politics can be considered both instrumental and influential power. However, when looking at individual or small groups of politicians and their language use (e.g. giving speeches), we usually consider this a type of influential power. This is because, although we are expected to abide by the laws politicians set, we have a choice over who we vote for and which policies.

Politicians, therefore, utilise language in such a way to gain more influential power for themselves and their affiliated parties.

Let's take a look at some times and places when politicians may use the English language to gain power and some common techniques used.

Politics and the English language

One of the most common places we see politicians using language techniques is in speeches. Speeches are often persuasive and engaging spoken texts used to influence and persuade the masses into voting a certain way or adopting certain political and societal values.

Politicians may also utilise language to gain influential power when making public appearances, such as appearing on the TV (e.g. the News), when talking to journalists, and when answering members of the public's questions.

A final consideration is the concept of parliamentary speech, the language politicians use when talking to each other. The use of parliamentary speech falls within the category of pragmatics. We will cover this in full detail later.

Politics and language techniques

Now we have a good idea of the relationship between language, politics, and power, and when politicians may utilise language to gain influential power. Let's look at some well-known language techniques used to influence others.

When analysing political speeches and politician's use of the English language, we can look out for the following language techniques:

  • Political rhetoric

  • Pragmatics

  • Forms of address

  • Political spin

Let's look at these in more detail.

Political rhetoric

Political rhetoric is the name given to the frequent persuasive language techniques used by politicians. The term rhetoric is used to describe the art of persuasive speaking or writing and comes from the Greek rhetor, meaning 'professional speaker'.

Common features of political rhetoric with examples are laid out in the table below:

Features of political rhetoricExamples
Alliteration'Veni, Vidi, Vici' - Julius Caesar
Allusion (referring to something without explicitly mentioning it)'Ask not just what our government can do for us, but what we can do for ourselves' - Barack Obama(Alludes to J. F. Kennedy's inaugural address)
Rhetorical questions with suggested answers'Where are the 9 million more jobs that President Obama promised his stimulus would have created by now? They are in China, Mexico, and Canada [...]' - Mitt Romney
Lists of three'Education, education, education' - Tony Blair
Metaphors and extended metaphorsCommon metaphors in politics include comparing:Politics to warThe economy to a building Nations to people
Repetition'We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.' - Donald Trump
Imperatives 'Get Brexit done' - British Conservative Party
Flattery'And might I say you're all looking rather lovely this evening...' - Boris Johnson
Emotive language 'Do not the British people deserve a Prime Minister they can trust, not a Government who are mired in sleaze, cronyism and scandal?' - Kier Starmer
Hyperbole 'So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' - Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Tautology (Saying the same thing twice)'It is what it is' - Donald Trump
Prevarication (avoiding the question)'I'm not interested in that. I'll tell you what I am interested in...'

Language and politics, Image of man giving a speech, StudySmarterPoliticians often use imperative sentences - StudySmarter Original

How many of the previous techniques can you see in this 2017 speech extract from then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

'Ready to tackle inequality, ready to rebuild our NHS, ready to give opportunities to young people, dignity and security to older people, ready to invest in our economy and meet the challenges of climate change and automation, ready to put peace and justice at the heart of foreign policy. And ready to build a new and progressive relationship with Europe.

We are ready and the Tories are clearly not. They're certainly not strong and they're definitely not stable. They're not remotely united. And they're hanging on by their fingertips.

But this Tory Government does have one thing that we lack. They have tracked down the Magic Money Tree when it was needed to keep Theresa May in Downing Street. It was given a good old shake – and lo and behold – now we know the price of power – it's about £100m for each Democratic Unionist MP.

During the election campaign, Theresa May told voters they faced the threat of a "coalition of chaos. Remember that? Well, now they're showing us exactly how that works. And I don't just mean the Prime Minister's desperate deal with the DUP. She's got a "coalition of chaos" around her own cabinet table – Phillip Hammond and Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis.'

In this speech, we can see;

  • Repetition - 'Ready to tackle inequality, ready to rebuild our NHS, ready to give opportunities to young people [...]'
  • Allusion - 'They're certainly not strong, and they're definitely not stable.' (alluding to Theresa May's 2017 political slogan.
  • Rhetorical question - 'Theresa May told voters they faced the threat of a "coalition of chaos. Remember that?'
  • List of three - 'Phillip Hammond and Liam Fox, Boris Johnson and David Davis.'
  • Hyperbole - 'They're hanging on by their fingertips'

Pragmatics

The linguist David Crystal suggested that the standard maxims of conversation (these are Grice's maxims) don't necessarily apply in parliamentary speech.

Let's remind ourselves of the conversational maxims;

  • Maxim of quantity - individuals will give as much information as needed

  • Maxim of quality - individuals will only say things they believe to be true

  • Maxim of relevance - individuals will only give relevant information

  • Maxim of manner - individuals will be clear, concise, and avoid ambiguity

According to Crystal, politicians don't follow the maxims in the same way others do as they have other motives than maintaining a successful conversation, i.e. influencing others. This means that politicians often do not assume that other politicians are telling the truth, are only giving relevant information, or are avoiding ambiguity.

Do you think politicians only flaunt or break conversational maxims when talking to each other, or do you think these tactics extend to their speech in the public eyes as well?

Phatic tokens

Another technique politicians use is phatic tokens; these are socio-pragmatic parts of speech used to build social bonds and solidarity. Examples of phatic tokens include small talk (e.g. nice weather today), greetings (e.g. nice to see you), and compliments (e.g. you look lovely today).

Pay attention to the beginning of political speeches. See if you notice how many start with phatic tokens.

Forms of address

The term 'forms of address' refers to the word, title, or name we use to talk to or about other people. In speeches, it is very common for politicians to use personal pronouns, such as I, we, they, and you as a way of building rapport and a sense of familiarity with the listeners.

Rapport - a relationship built on agreement and understanding.

Synthetic personalisation

The theorist and discourse analyst Norman Fairclough introduced the concept of synthetic personalisation in 1989 to explain how people in positions of power, such as politicians, address mass audiences as if they were individuals through inclusive language. By using personal pronouns and directly addressing the listener, politicians are able to create a sense of friendship between themselves and the masses and build trust.

'I'm proud of my team, I'm proud of our members, I'm proud to lead this party - but most of all, I'm proud of you.' - David Cameron, 2011.

Political spin

Political spin is a fairly recent term, and it is used to describe a type of propaganda politicians use to present their desired interpretation of a fact/situation rather than explicitly stating the truth. If you've ever seen an uncomfortable interview between a politician and a journalist, it's likely you've witnessed political spin.

Common techniques of political spin include;

  • Prevarication (avoiding the question)

  • Mispresenting facts

  • Misleading information

  • Withholding information

  • Repetition

  • Tautology (saying the same thing but with different words)

George Orwell: Language and Politics

'Language and politics' is a highly influential essay written by the British author George Orwell in 1946. In his essay, Orwell criticises the language used by politicians, stating it is lazy and relies on 'stock phrases' rather than any meaningful discourse.

In 'Language and politics', Orwell lists five examples of what he considers the worst examples of poor political writing. They are;

  • Lack of precision - The meaning of what is being said hasn't been successfully communicated. Either the speaker failed to express themselves properly or were speaking for the sake of speaking and didn't really care about the meaning.

  • Dying metaphors - These are metaphors that have been used so many times they have lost their original meaning and impact. Orwell suggests lazy writers use dying metaphors, such as 'no axe to grind', without care for their actual meaning.

  • Verbal false limbs - When long, extended, and vague phrases are used in place of concise language.

  • Pretentious diction - The use of complex or Latinate words (words deriving from Latin, e.g. ameliorate) to make opinions sound more authoritative.

  • Meaningless words - Orwell suggested that many words used in politics get 'thrown around' so often they have lost their meaning. He cites examples such as fascism and human.

Language and politics, Image of George Orwell, StudySmarterGeorge Orwell wrote a lot about the English language and politics - Wikimedia Commons

Language and Politics Example

Here is a political speech from 1988 given by then Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher. The speech was given before the Church of Scotland general assembly.

Take a read before we look at how to analyse a speech like this.

I am greatly honoured to have been invited to attend the opening of this 1988 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; and I am deeply grateful that you have now asked me to address you.

I am very much aware of the historical continuity extending over four centuries, during which the position of the Church of Scotland has been recognised in constitutional law and confirmed by successive Sovereigns. It sprang from the independence of mind and rigour of thought that have always been such powerful characteristics of the Scottish people, as I have occasion to know. It has remained close to its roots and has inspired a commitment to service from all people.

I am therefore very sensible of the important influence which the Church of Scotland exercises in the life of the whole nation, both at the spiritual level and through the extensive caring services which are provided by your Church's department of social responsibility. And I am conscious also of the value of the continuing links which the Church of Scotland maintains with other Churches.

Perhaps it would be best, Moderator, if I began by speaking personally as a Christian, as well as a politician, about the way I see things. Reading recently, I came across the starkly simple phrase: "Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform".

Sometimes the debate on these matters has become too polarised and given the impression that the two are quite separate. But most Christians would regard it as their personal Christian duty to help their fellow men and women. They would regard the lives of children as a precious trust. These duties come not from any secular legislation passed by Parliament, but from being a Christian.

But there are a number of people who are not Christians who would also accept those responsibilities. What then are the distinctive marks of Christianity?

They stem not from the social but from the spiritual side of our lives, and personally, I would identify three beliefs in particular:

First, that from the beginning man has been endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil. And second, that we were made in God's own image and, therefore, we are expected to use all our own power of thought and judgement in exercising that choice; and further, that if we open our hearts to God, He has promised to work within us. And third, that Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when faced with His terrible choice and lonely vigil chose to lay down His life that our sins may be forgiven. I remember very well a sermon on an Armistice Sunday when our Preacher said, "No one took away the life of Jesus, He chose to lay it down".

How to analyse a political speech

In your exams and essays, you may be expected to analyse a political speech much like the one above. Here are some tips on how to do so and an example analysis of the above speech.

First, consider;

  • The whole speech - who is addressing who and what are they trying to achieve?

  • The approach - is it an informative speech, a persuasive speech, an emotive speech etc.?

  • Historical context and allusion - is the speech referencing a moment/person/event in the past?

  • Does the speaker share a sense of their personal life? - do they provide personal anecdotes?

  • Use of political rhetoric - which techniques from the above table are used and why?

  • Form of address - how is the speaker addressing the audience?

  • What has been omitted? - is the speaker deliberately omitting certain information or perspectives? Are they putting a 'spin' on what they're saying?

So, what can we say about Thatcher's 1988 speech;

Thatcher is arguably trying to strengthen the bond between England and Scotland. It is an emotive and personal speech in which she shares many of her own thoughts and some personal anecdotes. She alludes to the Bible and the principles of Christianity, evoking feelings of social responsibility and togetherness.

She begins with phatic communication and flattery by stating how honoured she is to be there. She uses rhetorical questions, e.g. What then are the distinctive marks of Christianity? and repetition by repeating the word God several times.

Regarding forms or address, Thatcher addresses the audience as Christians and also makes use of the personal pronoun you.

Finally, Thatcher uses a list of three to identify her personal religious beliefs.

Language and Politics - Key Takeaways

  • The relationship between language and politics falls within the study of language and power.
  • Politicians can utilise language to gain influential power for themselves and their affiliated parties.
  • Politicians often make use of the following language techniques; Political rhetoric, pragmatics, personal pronouns, and political spin.
  • Political rhetoric is the name given to the frequent persuasive language techniques used by politicians. Examples of political rhetoric include; lists of three, alliteration, rhetorical questions, emotive language, metaphors, and allusion.
  • When analysing political speeches, consider the speaker and the audience, the purpose of the speech, the context, the use of political rhetoric, the forms of address, what is being alluded to and what has been omitted?



References

  1. L. Thomas & S. Wareing. Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. 1999.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Politics

The study of language and politics looks at the way language and linguistic techniques are used within the political realm to influence others.

Language can be used in many different ways to influence politics. Language can be used in speeches to influence others' thoughts and voting patterns, to present a desired 'spin' on events, to avoid certain questions, and build rapport and a sense of trust. 

The relationship between language and politics falls within the study of language and power, which recognises how others can use language to make us act, feel, or think in certain ways without force. 

The study of politics and the English language can reveal how language techniques can be used to create influential power over the masses. This is important as it can provide explanations for historical events, such as the reign of Hitler, and can help us recognise when political rhetoric is being used and why. 

George Orwell wrote the essay 'Politics and the English language' in 1946.

Final Language and Politics Quiz

Question

Fill in the blank:


The relationship between language and politics falls within the study of language and ____.

Show answer

Answer

power

Show question

Question

According to Wareing (1991), there are two main types of power. What are they?

Show answer

Answer

Instrumental and influential power

Show question

Question

Politicians have what type of power?

Show answer

Answer

Influential 

Show question

Question

What is parliamentary speech?

Show answer

Answer

The language politicians use when talking to each other. Parliamentary speech may also extend into public speaking.

Show question

Question

What is political rhetoric?

Show answer

Answer

The name given to the frequent persuasive language techniques used by politicians. 

Show question

Question

What is allusion?

Show answer

Answer

Referring to something without explicitly mentioning it.

Show question

Question

What is prevarication?

Show answer

Answer

Avoiding the question

Show question

Question

What type of sentences are a common part of political rhetoric?

Show answer

Answer

Imperative

Show question

Question

What type of question is often used in political speeches?

Show answer

Answer

Rhetorical questions

Show question

Question

What is 'Veni, Vidi, Vici' an example of?

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Answer

Alliteration

Show question

Question

Fill in the gap:

The linguist David Crystal suggested that the standard maxims of conversation ___ apply in parliamentary speech. 


Show answer

Answer

Don't

Show question

Question

What is phatic communication?

Show answer

Answer

Small talk used for building social bonds

Show question

Question

What type of pronouns do politicians often use in their speeches?

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Answer

Personal pronouns

Show question

Question

Who coined the term 'synthetic personalisation'?

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Answer

Norman Fairclough

Show question

Question

What is synthetic personalisation?

Show answer

Answer

When people in positions of power, such as politicians, address mass audiences as if they were individuals through inclusive language, i.e. you

Show question

Question

What is the name given to the type of propaganda politicians use to present their desired interpretation of a fact/situation rather than explicitly stating the truth.

Show answer

Answer

Political spin

Show question

Question

Who wrote 'Politics and the English language'?

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Answer

George Orwell

Show question

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