Political language has been studied by sociolinguists, communication scholars, political scientists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and marketing professionals. Shared assumptions across these fields are that (1) citizens come to know their political worlds through messages and symbols, and (2) political words do not have meaning in themselves; rather their meanings are a function of contexts, speakers, audiences, and predispositions. Beyond these shared assumptions, specific fields have made unique contributions to what is known about political language.
Fundamental contributions to this topic have been provided by sociolinguists. Widely accepted claims from this area include those that naming is critical to communication (for only entities that are named can be shared among people; Kress & Hodge 1981); that language helps individuals to understand situations (as the structure of any language helps to shape the perceptual and conceptual discriminations available to individuals; Fowler 1974); and that political language is not static (indeed, political terms can change with time as the meanings of words can expand, contract, or shift from their original meanings; Fromkin & Rodman 1974).
Key scholarship in communication and cultural studies has also focused on the power of names and naming. Three key works from these fields link shifts in word use to broader ideological concerns. British theorist Raymond Williams’s Keywords (1976) took a longitudinal approach to show how important social and historical processes occur within language. Williams observed from a Marxist perspective how certain meanings emerged (e.g., capitalism), older meanings became reversed (e.g., society, individual), and still others were extended (e.g., interest) over time in language. In doing so, he underscored how cultural and ideological shifts can be witnessed in the meanings ascribed to words. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke (1950, 1966) also discussed the capacity of language to shape people’s thoughts, particularly subconscious thoughts. Burke introduced the notion of a “terministic screen” that serves as a set of symbols through which individuals can interpret and make sense of their worlds. These screens present a means of studying the intersection between language and ideology, for individuals can only see the world as their symbol systems allow them to do so. Rhetorician Richard Weaver (1953) pointed out how certain words are politically loaded in a society when he developed the concepts of “god” terms (words that have an automatic positive meaning) and “devil” terms (words that trigger negative associations). Weaver detailed how such terms have considerable persuasive – and propagandistic – force. He urged individuals to use such words with caution and to consider carefully when these words are employed by others.
The most powerful work in political science on political language has been advanced by Murray Edelman. Two of his seminal books, Symbolic uses of politics (1964) and Political language (1977), drew on foundational understandings from sociolinguistics and imported them into political settings. In both of these books, Edelman asserted that individuals are far more likely to experience the language surrounding politics than actual political events themselves. For this reason, he regarded language as the central factor in social relations and action. In Symbolic uses of politics, Edelman argued that it is imperative to study how language shapes people’s realities and how it establishes specific perspectives for evaluation (while distracting individuals from considering alternative perspectives). Notably, he discussed how elites use language to shape citizen expectations of government and of leadership, as well as perceptions of the past and the future. A key theme of his discussion was that the constructions provided by elites do not have to mirror empirical realities. He maintained that the language and symbols used to describe a leader, government, or issue do not have to be accurate, but they do describe how elites have guided conversations and how individuals have been encouraged to think and feel about themselves and their systems.
In Political language, Edelman focused specifically on how language is used to classify people, to define groups, and to justify actions and policies. Specifically, he described how labeling can (1) cast individual persons as deserving of state assistance or support, (2) define particular groups as allies or enemies, and (3) signal that certain issues are appropriate for political discussion. Edelman maintained that all of these processes have important consequences in political life. To politicize a person, a group, or an issue, in his mind, is to define it as appropriate for decision-making. In contrast, to ignore a person, to define a group as an enemy, or to regard an issue as nonpolitical often serves to win general acceptance for elite values. Political labels not only designate certain people and topics as political, but also contribute to the identity of a society. When citizens accept particular constructions, they help to create their own realities and collective identities. Edelman discussed how there are considerable incentives to accept the labels and the constructed understandings that are offered by political elites and promoted in media programming. Accepting these allows citizens to accept dominant and reassuring perspectives on public affairs rather than having to challenge understandings of themselves, their institutions, and their society.
Historical analyses of political language point to the intersection of words, traditions, and public life. From this perspective, scholars examine the ability of words to inspire, enrage, mobilize, and make mass actions possible. Sociological analyses of political language attend to how groups discuss politics, how groups are encouraged to enter public debates (and public life) and dissuaded from doing so, and what types of group interactions might lead to greater political participation (as well as what types of group dynamics make individuals want to avoid politics entirely). Psychological analyses explore how various linguistic framing techniques shape the way individuals interpret messages and make judgments.
The study of political language in marketing and business schools has forwarded important observations on psychological short cuts, brand identification, and brand loyalty. As political campaign environments become increasingly professionalized and tied to the best business practices of marketing and advertising, valuable contributions to the understanding of political language have emerged from business schools. European scholars, particularly, have focused on the marketing and branding practices of political parties and other groups in political life (Newman 1999).
A variety of methodologies has been employed to study political language. Content analytic research has tracked trends in word use, documented shifts over time, and made connections between patterns in word use and public opinion, public policy, and electoral outcomes. Computerized content analysis has examined large corpuses of texts to search for macro-patterns over time, across speaker type, and across various types of political messages. Stylistic analyses point to more nuanced differences in language use between speakers, message types, and political circumstances. Rhetorical analyses of historical texts have addressed how language has functioned in prior political contexts. Experimental and focus group research capture how language and framing techniques influence attitudes and behaviors.
- Burke, K. (1950). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Edelman, M. E. (1964). Symbolic uses of politics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Edelman, M. E. (1977). Political language: Words that succeed and policies that fail. New York: Academic Press.
- Eliasoph, N. (1998). Avoiding politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Fowler, R. (1974). Understanding language: An introduction to linguistics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Fromkin, V., & Rodman, R. (1974). An introduction to language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Gamson, W. (2002). Talking politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hart, R. P., Jarvis, S. E., Jennings, W. P., & Smith Howell, D. (2005). Political keywords: Using language that uses us. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Kress, G., & Hodge, R. (1981). Language as ideology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
- Newman, B. (1999). Handbook of political marketing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Rodgers, D. (1998). Contested truths. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Weaver, R. (1953). The ethics of rhetoric. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.
- Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. New York: Oxford University Press.