Language in Politics

Most of you language buffs out there must have heard about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism, or, in its weaker form, linguistic relativity. (If not, look it up, it’s rather cool!)

While the stronger version (linguistic determinism) seems implausible, there is an accruing body of evidence to buttress linguistic relativity.

What that means in lay terms is that the language we use influences thought, perception and interpretation.

Why is this significant? Not only because learning a foreign language is a transformative process involving more than vocabulary (it means buying into another conceptual framework, culture and worldview). But most importantly because the linguistic and rhetorical choices we are exposed to in our own language, that “way with words” of political decision-makers can greatly influence how we think, feel and act, and the attitudes we develop to the most diverse of issues.

Formulaic language for instance, i.e. discourse that consists of a small number of standard phrases and slogans repeated over and over (think North Korea or communist regimes the world over) actually generates conformist behavior and limits critical thought. Words and the mental imagery they help create can inform and shape attitudes (think Orwellian ‘Newspeak’, opinion bots and trolls) and behaviors.

On the positive side, changes in linguistic expression made to avoid derogatory speech have spearheaded efforts to improve the lot of those on the receiving end of abuse. Just think about the metamorphosis from crippled – disabled – person with impairment. Not everybody hates political correctness.

According to linguists, language is capable of affecting and distorting perception. It helps define and redefine the world. Its powers are well-known (and often ill-applied) by marketers and politicians of all extractions.

To avoid falling prey to propaganda the next time you are exposed to political discourse, analyze it critically, challenge its hidden assumptions and presuppositions, evaluate its implications.

To make your life easier, here are some of the most common rhetorical devices employed in political discourse:

  • metaphors
  • 3-part lists (from Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” to Lenin’s “Learn, learn, learn”)
  • antithesis (contrastive pairs)
  • the deliberate use of active or passive voice
  • repetition and parallelism
  • euphemisms, dysphemisms and hermetic argot (pay attention to the language of war!)
  • personification
  • the use of pronouns (we, they, I, us).

For more language consultancy services, competent translation and well-crafted content, feel free to contact me.

P.S. And did you know that people tend to be a lot less critical of the message they receive when they are entertained? Think about that next time news stories, political speeches and talk shows feel eerily similar to entertainment!