News Release: Politics

Oct. 2,  2008

Election Experts

Expert: Political Language Relies on Linguistic Cues

When it comes to rhetoric, it's not always what you say, but how you say it. Political language especially can have layered meanings, says Emory University linguistics expert Susan Tamasi.

"Political language works because as listeners of political speeches, we have a habit of focusing on sound bites, taking them at face value, instead of really reading into what's being said," Tamasi says. "Of course, sometimes this is done for "our candidate" while we completely pull apart what was said by "the other candidate."

"Linguistic cues can have a pretty powerful effect on people’s perception of the candidates," Tamasi says. "However, since much of this is perceived subconsciously, most people won't realize the degree that the type of language used really does affect their perceptions. Body language is a good example of this. Similarly, in 2004, many people decided they liked Bush over Kerry because Kerry seemed too formal (and therefore elitist) while Bush sounded less formal, more like they themselves sound."

Tamasi and students from her class on language and social interaction came up with a list of linguistic cues and clues to look for in the debates. Here is what they developed:

  • The use of formal vs. informal language: Are they using colloquialisms, jokes, "down-home" language, or are they keeping it at a more standard, formal level that is expected for a debate but can alienate an audience?
  • Audience: Are they addressing each other, the American people, or the debate moderator?
  • The focus of the message: Are they answering the questions at hand, or are they manipulating their answers to talk about different issues. For example, this debate is supposed to focus on foreign policy, but how much time will they spend talking about the economy?
  • Audience reaction and the expectation of audience reaction: Is the audience cheering or booing their answers? How do they respond to this? They'll definitely be stressing words and inserting pauses in order to get a reaction, but does this work positively or negatively for them?
  • Body language: Especially, how do they react to their opponent's answers?
  • Assumptions and inference: Are the candidates leaving gaping holes in their logic so that the audience makes particular assumptions and inferences? "As a bad hypothetical example: The Senator once voted against a bill that included something about babies. Obviously the Senator hates babies," Usage of the opponent's name: Will we hear "Senator McCain said..." vs. "My opponent said ... "? For example, Palin never mentioned Obama by name during her convention speech, even though she referred to him many times, Tamasi says.  

Tamasi is a specialist in sociolinguistics and American English dialects — their structure, development and connections with social and political issues. She can discuss linguistics, discourse analysis and use of campaign language.

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