Politics of Language (Part 1)

Sep 21, 2011

Political rhetoric can be confusing and combative. We hear lots of political phrases that we quickly find absorbed into our everyday conversations. But what influence do these powerful words and phrases have on us? Over the next few days we’ll be taking a look at the politics of language. In part one of our series Michigan Radio's Jennifer White talks with Dr. Sarah Thomason, Chair of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Michigan.

It's no secret that politicians strategically use language to persuade people to agree with their message or take action on a particular issue. Dr. Thomason says there can be lot of planning that goes into word choice and use.

“Whoever had the brilliant idea of referring to President Obama's economy plan as “class warfare” did an excellent job of predicting how people would react to that. If you're in favor of the policy that the President is proposing then you'd think it's a cheap shot. So it really depends on your politics. But the phrase itself evokes bad things."

Dr. Thomson explains that you don't have to be a linguist to predict how a person might react to certain words or phrases, and she adds:

"Look at the structure of the argument instead of the words in which they are couched. That's the way to get through the words that are loaded to the message. But most people don't do that, most people don't think analytically they think emotionally."

Here's another example:

"There are terms like "pro-family" that mean very different things. To conservatives you're talking about pro-life, anti-gay marriage; to liberals you're talking about social health care, gay rights, totally different conception, but they are both in their own mind "pro-family." But their audiences are interpreting the phrase in very different ways and so are the speakers."