Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English

Volume 17 – The Pragmatics and Stylistics of Identity Construction and Characterisation

Article Contents

1. Introduction

2. Political speeches and the language of persuasion and power

3. Pronouns in political language

4. Data and methods

4.1 Small Corpus of Political Speeches

4.2 Retrieval and categorisation

5. Analysis of diachronic trends

6. Conclusions



Looking for rhetorical thresholds: Pronoun frequencies in political speeches

Jukka Tyrkkö
University of Tampere and Linnaeus University

“The creation of consent […] has, in fact, improved enormously in technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.” Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion (1922)


The deliberate and considered use of personal pronouns is one of the primary linguistic features used by political speakers to manage their audiences’ perceptions of in-groups and out-groups. In this diachronic study of political speeches over the last two centuries, I will argue that a notable shift took place in politicians’ use of personal pronouns around the 1920s, immediately following the time broadcast media emerged on the scene.

1. Introduction

Walter Lippmann (1889–1974) was an American journalist, author and political thinker. In Public Opinion, his widely influential analysis of contemporary politics and the state of democracy, Lippmann argued that most people are not capable of forming a comprehensive and coherent view of the increasingly complex world around them, and that consequently they need need to have their opinions and views guided and managed by the well-informed. Crucially, Lippmann suggested that these well-informed individuals are usually not the leaders, and that the processes of analysis and political leadership are two separate skills. What civil society needs, Lippmann argued, are analytical insights into the issues at hand followed by political rhetoric that sells the resulting new policies to the public. Consequently, the creating and managing of consent by means of carefully crafted process of analysis and mass communication had come to a crossroads in the early twentieth century, as the emerging new technologies and more studied use of mass psychology were about to change the very nature of democracy — and political language.

In this paper, I will argue that the early twentieth century witnessed a stylistic change in how politicians addressed the public, and that this change was at least partly, if not predominantly driven by the two mechanisms that Lippmann identified: modern means of communication and more sophisticated psychological insights into the creation of public consent. As the means of reaching ever-wider audiences improved, the language of politics had to shift to be more inclusive, at least on the surface, and to pay more attention to how diverse audiences might react to the message. From the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century, Anglo-American societies witnessed extensive political, societal, technological and cultural changes which could be collectively described as the process of democratization. As the electorate expanded and modern mass media developed, politicians wishing to win over the voting public had to adjust their message. Although political persuasion is naturally highly contextual, there are also rhetorical means which appear to remain relatively stable in function, if not in frequency.

The use of personal pronouns has been shown in numerous previous studies of political language to be the single most important linguistic feature when it comes to fostering and managing sentiments of group membership (see section 3). Given that nearly all political speeches are ultimately intended to exploit in-group and out-group dynamics to the advantage of the speaker and the detriment of their political opponents, the considered use of personal pronouns is a highly salient characteristic of political speaking. However, to my knowledge no previous study has looked at the phenomenon from a frequency-based, diachronic perspective in an effort to discover whether the patterns and practices of personal pronoun use in political speeches constitute a stable and reasonably unchanging phenomenon, or whether there are discernible trends that transcend the styles of individual speakers and the demands of specific issues.

In this pilot study I will combine methods of diachronic corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis to examine how often and in what part of the speech politicians tend to refer to us, them and the other, and whether we can discern diachronic trends which might be related to the process of democratization. [1] As a point of departure to most studies of political language, which have traditionally focused on specific case studies ranging from well-defined political scenarios to individual politicians and sometimes single influential speeches, my starting point will be somewhat different.Using the Small Corpus of Political Speeches as my primary data (see section 4), I will examine speeches as a developing text type over the time period of 1800–2000 from a diachronic perspective without focusing on, and most of the time without even acknowledging, the topics of the individual speeches. Although the corpus does include metadata on the speakers, their party affiliations, the topics of the individual speeches, and on various other factors, these will be set aside with the exception of specific examples, which will be contextualized. I will present baseline evidence of the overall use of personal pronouns in political speeches and show that while the overall personal pronoun frequency has remained largely stable over the past two centuries, political rhetoric has in fact undergone a significant change, culminating in a rhetorical threshold in the early twentieth century when political speakers switched from an I-focused mode of speech to a we-focused one, and the compound frequency of references to self and references to the in-group increased markedly at the expense of other personal pronouns.

2. Political speeches and the language of persuasion and power

Rhetoric, the art of public speaking, is one of the oldest and most influential areas of intellectual engagement. From Aristotle and Cicero to St. Thomas Aquinas to Dryden, the formal study of rhetoric has been a key topic of study in the humanities. Although the practice of rhetoric has undergone gradual changes over the centuries, most notably when it comes to changes in the media of communication and the consequent increase in the size of the potential audience, the fact remains that an effective political speaker, or their team of writers, needs to be able to craft and deliver a convincing and compelling public speech. [2] The success of a political speech does not hang on the content of the message alone, but rather relies on the delivery, the framing of concepts and the associations and affiliations that the speaker manages to evoke. Like the dramatic soliloquy, a political speech is an archetypal example of a text written-to-be-spoken. With few exceptions, political speeches are not ad hoc presentations, regardless of how they come across — or, as Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “it usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech”. Political speeches are prepared in advance, today often by teams of professional speechwriters, they are tested using focus groups, and they follow tried-and-tested rhetorical techniques. In short, political speeches are highly engineered texts designed to affect the listener and to elicit a specific emotional and intellectual response, which later translates into a vote. The speeches studied in this paper were primarily delivered by prominent politicians such as party leaders, presidents, presidential candidates, and government ministers, with a smattering of civil rights leaders and minor members of parliament thrown in for good measure. Consequent to the high status of most of the speakers, it is likely that most of the speeches were the product of team effort.

In the present study, the objective of the research project is less critically oriented than in most studies of political language. Linguistic scholarship of political discourse has largely been conducted within the framework of Critical Discourse Analysis, wherein the established methodology has focused on close reading individual speeches to uncover veiled meanings, doubletalk, metaphorical tropes, stock phrases, semantic prosodies and other linguistic mechanisms by which political actors influence each other and their audiences, and by which power is used and abused in society (see, e.g., Fairclough 1989, 2001). [3] Although I will comment on individual speeches on occasion, the main focus will be on the long-term trends we can observe in the use of personal pronouns in political speeches over a period of some two hundred years. [4]  

Of all human activities, the field of politics is perhaps the most susceptible to the phenomenon of mediatization, that is, of the processes by which media has increasingly become the dominant force in society and as a result of which communicators must take media and their inherent rules, the so-called media logic, into consideration when formulating their message. [5] This not only means that a political speaker would prepare their message to fit the audience in front of them, but also that the core dynamic of political communication may change away from the message and toward the delivery. Observant of the “logic of the media”, a concept coined by Hjarvard (2008), politicians and other actors in society, such as entertainment celebrities and religious figures, adopt new objectives and discard ones that no longer serve their purpose. According to Esser and Strömbäck (2014: 7), “As politics becomes increasingly mediated, it becomes more important for political actors and institutions to use the media to reach out to larger groups of society”. In the present study, I will specifically consider the impact that the transition from paper-based mass media to radio and television and finally to Internet media had on pronominal references in political speaking, proceeding from the hypothesis that the enlargement of the audience would change the relationship between the speaker and the audience by focusing more attention on the need to foster a sense of community rather than presenting the politician as a charismatic authority.

3. Pronouns in political language

The primary objective of political speaking is to affect the opinions and choices of others. This usually involves the juxtaposing of opposing views and, consequently, the construction or maintenance of listeners’ sense of having affiliations and allegiances with a particular community (Hahn 2003, Allen 2007). Although the concept of community can be difficult to define in precise terms, one of the key defining characteristics is that the members of a community share a sense of belonging to that group and not to another (Íñigo-Mora 2004: 29). Consequently, one of the primary techniques in political rhetoric is the setting up of contrasts between us and them, or between the in-group and the out-group. Depending on the political arena, the latter may be portrayed not merely as the Other but as a Threat or an Enemy (see, e.g., Pennycook 1994, van Dijk 1997a, Joseph 2006).

As Chilton (2003) notes, a variety of linguistic devices ranging from the deliberate choice of register-specific words to the use of address terms can be employed for the purposes of signalling distance or affiliation between political actors and for establishing and maintaining individual and group identities. The effective use of indexicality, defined by Chilton as “the implicit signalling of political affiliations”, is one of the central features of political language use, and pronouns have been recognised by scholars as one of the most powerful means of enacting indexicality (see, e.g., Brown and Gilman 1960, Maitland and Wilson 1987, Pennycook 1994, Allen 2007, Petersoo 2007, Fetzer and Bull 2008, Cramer 2010, Zhan 2012, Bello 2013, Chimbarange et al. 2013 and Roitman 2014). [6]

Paradoxically, the rhetorical usefulness of personal pronouns derives from their inherently affective qualities as well as from their referential ambiguity, and thus two major approaches to the study of pronouns in political language can be distinguished. [7] The first concerns the use of pronouns for the purposes of distinguishing in-groups and out-groups, and the other the use of pronouns for deliberately obfuscating or misdirecting audiences’ allegiances. The use of pronouns for fostering a sense of belonging to an in-group or, conversely, for the purposes of othering has been the subject of numerous studies over the years, and the general principles by which such mechanisms function can be considered established in literature. Although the “purposeful use of pronouns”, as described by Thomas and Wareing (1999), is a readily identified feature of all public communication and not just of political speaking, it may be argued that personal pronoun use is never more intensively purposeful than in political rhetoric. Consider the following example from Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican Governors Association in 2008 during her brief governorship of Alaska:

Sarah Palin © Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0Sarah Palin © Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 3.0

And I promise you Americans will be looking to their governors for reaction, for stepped-up leadership, and for our abilities to unite and to progress. Let the pundits go on with their idle talk about the next election, what happens in 2012. Our concern should be about our state's next great reform, our next budget, our next opportunity to progress in the states that we serve. And on issues like taxes and energy and health care, immigration, education, we will not lack for opportunities to serve and to lead and to show the way. If the new Congress and President err on the side, for instance, of excess taxes, then it will be falling on us to show them a better way.

In the first sentence of this passage, Palin makes a prediction, framed as a promise, to the audience about what will transpire in the near future. The sentence begins with a strong declarative speech act “I promise you” which fosters a positive relationship between the speaker and the audience. Next, the reference to “their governors” posits the people, “Americans”, as the Other in relation to the current audience, Republican governors and their staff, and “our abilities” at the end of the sentence reinforces the in-group mentality. The next sentence creates a new Other, “the pundits”, casting them in a negative light (“their idle talk”). The next to sentences use “our” and “we” in reference to the positive qualities and bright future of the in-group, while the last sentence creates a third out-group, “the new Congress and President”, suggesting that the in-group of governors is superior to the new out group. Thus, within five sentences, Palin uses their and them three times, each time in reference to a different group of outsiders.

The second strand of research focuses on the use of pronouns as devices of deception by deliberate and sometimes complicated shifting of referents within the single discourse event. Fetzer and Bull (2008: 275) note that although pronouns are linguistically unambiguous in the sense that their referent can always be retrieved and the noun phrase placed in their stead, the same cannot be said when it comes to the discursive perspective. According to Allen (2007: 12), “Shifting identity through pronoun choice and using pronouns with ambiguous referents enables politicians to appeal to diverse audiences which helps broaden their ability to persuade the audience to their point of view. It is a scattergun effect – shoot broadly enough and you’ll hit something”.

The prime example of this inherent ambiguity of personal pronouns can be seen in the first person plural we, which Pyykkö (2002: 246) describes as “a central political force of influence” and Wales (1996: 58) defines as “usefully ambivalent” for political speaking. It is of course well attested that the English we can be used both inclusively and exclusively, as a vague in-group reference to hide behind, and sometimes with multiple referents within a single sentence. Quirk et al. (1985: 350–1) distinguish between no less than eight senses of we: the generic, the inclusive authorial, the editorial, the rhetorical, in reference to the hearer, in reference to a third party, the royal we, and the self-referential we. Out of these, it is the rhetorical we that is so strongly associated with political language use. According to Wales (1996: 59), “the politician-speaker often uses we with the double inference and presumption that he or she is not only speaking on behalf of the party or government (exclusive), but also on behalf of the audience (inclusive)”. To illustrate this with an example drawn from the corpus to be discussed shortly, let us take an example. In the following speech delivered by President Obama in Denver, 9th of July, 2014, we see a shift in person focus in nearly every sentence, sometimes multiple times within a single sentence.

President Barack Obama. Photo by Pete Souza. © Public domain.President Barack Obama. Photo by Pete Souza. © Public domain.

The other thing I want to make sure people understand is, is that we are making progress, as bad as the news looks, if all you were doing was watching cable TV all day long.  Yes, the crisis that hit towards the end of my first campaign hit us all really badly; 2007, 2008, that was rough.  But today, our businesses have added nearly 10 million new jobs over the past 52 months.  Construction and housing are rebounding.  Our auto industry is booming.  Manufacturing is adding jobs for the first time since the ‘90s.  The unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest point since September of 2008 -- the fastest one-year drop in nearly 30 years.

And, look, most of this is attributable to you, the American people -- starting businesses, and paying down debt, and tightening belts, and doing all kinds of stuff just to make sure that you kept on and were able to look after your families.  But the decisions we made early on not only stopped the slide, but also built a new foundation for our economy, and they’re paying off now.

The speech is not confusing or incoherent in any way, but the repeated switches from I to we to you to my and back again build up to an intense sense of linking the speaker (the president) with the audience and thereby creating what Lippmann described as a “community of feeling”.

However, sometimes the shifts in focus can indeed be confusing. In the following excerpt from Donald Trump’s speech delivered on 30th December, 2015, in Hilton Head, South Carolina, there are two different, juxtaposed referents to the pronoun they: the media and Trump’s own supporters.

Donald Trump © Michael Vadon. CC-BY-SA 4.0Donald Trump © Michael Vadon. CC-BY-SA 4.0

You know, it’s interesting. One of the polls came out from CNBC and they said that if it’s Trump against Hillary in the election, it will be the greatest voter turnout in the history of this country. I can see that. I can see it.

And they said all of these people that are going to come in new, that never vote — they never vote, they don’t care — they’re going to mostly — I’ll tell you what, they’re going to vote for Trump. That’s why they’re coming in, because they’re so fed up with the system — this corrupt, horrible system. They’re fed up with it and they’re fed up with those guys back there, the media.

They are the worst.

No, no, no. They’re fed up. They’re fed up with the media. I mean, I’ve got — and you know, not all bad, but there’s so much dishonesty in the media. And I like to call it out. And one of the things that’s really been amazing to me, and such — it’s been so beautiful to watch — the level of genius in the public. They get it, you know? They really get it. They want to marginalize us, they want to do all of this and they want to make everybody look like, “Oh, gee.”

The level of genius — they fully understand. They know they’re crooked, they know they’re dishonest and they really — otherwise, who gets worse publicity than me?

Having thus established that politicians make extensive and studied use of personal pronouns, it is time to turn to the question at hand, namely can we discern any diachronic changes in the political use of personal pronouns?

4. Data and methods

The present study takes a corpus linguistic and data-driven approach to the issue of pronoun use in political speaking. Consequently, the emphasis of the analysis relies much more on frequency-based observations of occurrence and distribution than what is typical to political discourse analysis. Here and there, representative examples will be used to illustrate particular linguistic practices, but the extracts were not selected to exemplify specific political arguments nor are they contextualized in great detail.

4.1 Small Corpus of Political Speeches

I use as primary data the Small Corpus of Political Speeches (SCPS), compiled over several years at the Universities of Helsinki and Tampere. The corpus was originally conceived of as a teaching tool for corpus linguistic methodology classes. During each course, the students were presented with the corpus, its compilation principles and current composition. The class would then discuss how to expand the corpus — for example, one course decided to add more speeches by female politicians while another wanted to make it more representative of nineteenth-century American speeches. The students would then each download a set number of speeches available from various online speech archives, edit the speeches according to a set of principles. The following week, the new and enlarged version of the corpus would then be used in a small research project. In 2013 and 2014, the corpus was enlarged further with the assistance of two research assistants, Veera Saarimäki and Jenni Riihimäki respectively, at which point new, more carefully researcher metadata was also added.

In the present study, I used version 4 of the corpus, comprising 875 speeches and a total word count of 3.8 million words. The corpus covers the period 1800 to 2010 with a slight bias towards the turn of the twenty-first century, and focuses on American and British speeches but also includes a selection of Australian speeches. A wide range of topics and speech situations are included with no apparent bias for any specific type, though due to sourcing issues there is undoubtedly some bias towards well-known politicians. Similarly, although care was taken to avoid diachronic selection bias, the further back we go the more bias there is in favour of prominent politicians and historically notable speeches, such as presidential inaugural addresses. All the speeches are included in full length. The mean length is 3,880 words and the median length 3,324 (see Figure 1). The one outstanding outlier is Ted Cruz’s filibuster speech against Obamacare, deliver on September 24, 2013, which runs to 76,360 words. There is no significant change over the timeline when it comes to speech length (r=-0.06, R2=0.004). For more on the corpus and its metadata, see its entry in the Corpus Research Database.

Figure 1. Scatterplot of speech lengths on the timeline in SCPS.

Figure 1. Scatterplot of speech lengths on the timeline in SCPS.

As noted above, the speeches in the corpus were obtained from a variety of online archives of political speeches. [8] Consequently, the speeches have been transcribed by a wide variety of transcribers following an equally diverse variety of conventions; some recorded audience responses (applause, laugher, etc.) as well as meta-discourse by the speaker (such as repeated expression of “thank you” as a response to prolonged applause), while others only include the actual speech. To the extent possible, only the actual speech is included in the corpus and all other text in the source file is included within tags, which makes it easy to ignore them in queries. Likewise, the original transcription conventions differ when it comes to accurately features of spoken language are rendered in writing. Some transcribers expand features such as contracted forms of auxiliary verbs, while others treat them as a single lexical item: e.g, have not vs. haven’t. [9] Although this would not be an issue for a human reader, it makes a notable difference in corpus linguistic analysis when it comes to word counts, retrieval strings, collocate analysis, etc. Thus, in the interest of the present analysis, all contracted forms on the stop word list were automatically expanded, e.g., can’t -> cannot, haven’t -> have not, etc.

4.2 Retrieval and categorisation

When it comes to closed-class lexical items capable of signalling the presence of one or more human actors in the discursive context, the English pronoun system provides us with personal pronouns proper, both subject and object, possessive pronouns, and reflexive pronouns. Given that in the present study we are primarily interested in references by the speaker either to himself or herself, or to others, it makes sense also to include possessive determiners associated with personal pronouns because they are high frequency items and they can be used to signal political associations similarly to personal pronouns. On the other hand, both possessive pronouns and reflexive pronouns are low frequency items and virtually never used without the corresponding personal pronoun in close proximity, and consequently they were left out of the study.

Given that the corpus is restricted to the single register of political speeches, it seems reasonable to make certain blanket assumptions about the functional aspects of the personal pronouns. For example, although it is possible that some politicians in the data might used the royal or authorial we in reference to themselves, for the sake of keeping the analysis manageable I will make the assumption that such usage is rare enough to be negligible. Likewise, while the use of the singular gender-neutral they has become more common in recent years, it must be considered extremely rare over much of the timeline.

The analysis was operationalised as follows. The corpus was first queried for all cases of personal pronouns (both subject and object), possessive determiners and possessive pronouns Next, the pronouns and determiners were classified into semantic groups according to their primary referent, considering the first person singular to be Self-referential, the second person singular and plural as Audience-referential, the first person plural as Inclusive-referential and the third person singular and plural as Other-referential (Table 1). As the table shows, Audience references are the least frequent type of person pronominal use at a mean frequency of 5.76/1,000 words, while Inclusive references are the most common at 22.59/1,000 words.

Pronoun Person Case Frequency Standardised frequency
per 1,000 words
Standard deviation
I 1st subjective 38,822 10.30 7.82
me 1st objective 4,757 1.26 1.63
my 1st possessive 7,300 1.94 2.73
mine 1st possessive 208 0.06 0.19
you 2nd subjective or objective 17,387 4.61 5.09
your 2nd possessive 4,250 1.13 1.99
yours 2nd possessive 92 0.02 0.18
he 3rd subjective 9,803 2.60 3.21
him 3rd objective 2,232 0.59 0.98
his 3rd possessive 7,097 1.88 2.17
she 3rd subjective 1,706 0.45 1.46
her 3rd objective or possessive 2,582 0.68 2.07
hers 3rd possessive 12 0.00 0.03
we 1st subjective 46,671 12.38 7.47
us 1st objective 9,008 2.39 2.32
our 1st possessive 29,133 7.73 6.30
ours 1st possessive 377 0.10 0.27
they 3rd subjective 20,633 5.47 3.48
them 3rd objective 8586 2.28 1.49
their 3rd possessive 14,282 3.79 2.38
theirs 3rd possessive 118 0.03 0.12
SELF     51,087 13.55 10.84
INCLUSIVE     85,189 22.59 13.45
AUDIENCE     21,729 5.76 6.54
OTHER     67,051 17.78 9.65

Table 1. Basic statistics on the pronouns included.

However, as can be seen in Table 2, some speakers will far exceed these baseline frequencies, at least on occasion. Interestingly perhaps, many of the names among the top ranks are highly recognisable politicians, which suggests that the high frequency of personal pronouns may be a part of a successful rhetorical strategy, or at the very least it is not a hindrance.

Rank SELF reference St.freq INCLUSIVE St.freq AUDIENCE St.freq OTHER St.freq
1 1998_Clinton_B_4 80,65 2013_Obama_B_9 77,15 2006_Clooney_G_1 50,35 1848_Stanton_E_C_2 87,23
2 1997_Major_J_6 70,57 1993_Clinton_B_9 75,80 2009_Obama_M_2 46,82 1908_Pankhurst_E_3 68,14
3 1974_Ford_G_1 68,32 1945_Roosevelt_F_D_7 71,69 2011_Palin_1 45,78 1963_Mansfield_M_1 67,67
4 1793_Washington_G_3 66,67 1977_Carter_J_4 71,55 1889_Bradlaugh_C_2 41,88 2004_Bush_G_H_W_4 66,67
5 1969_Kennedy_E_3 65,57 1905_Roosevelt_T_1 69,18 1964_X_M_4 40,19 2004_Thatcher_M_8 66,49
6 1974_Ford_G_2 64,96 2001_Bush_G_W_6 67,59 1846_Wellesley_A_1 38,96 1863_Grimke_A_2 59,16
7 1834_Peel_R_2 60,66 2007_McGuinness_M_2 67,11 1963_X_M_2 34,51 1896_Addams_J_1 57,57
8 1851_Truth_S_1 59,49 1996_Clinton_B_3 66,44 2008_Johnson_B_2 32,26 1846_Villiers_C_3 51,10
9 1861_Lincoln_A_7 55,67 2009_Obama_B_8 64,50 1995_Clinton_B_2 31,80 1854_Stanton_E_C_3 47,66
10 1889_Bradlaugh_C_2 54,74 1933_Roosevelt_F_D_1 63,46 2004_Kerry_J_4 31,35 1867_Gage_F_D_1 47,58

Table 2. Ten highest ranking speeches in the corpus by pronoun category (/1,000 words).

Importantly, it goes without saying that these referential categories are only a rough approximation made necessary by the relatively large-scale of the corpus-based analysis. For example, it is certainly possible to find individual instances where references to him or them could be considered Inclusive, such as when a politician is thanking a specific supporter of his or her campaign, and likewise there may well be occasions where references to you may address a foreign leader who is not present and who may therefore be understood as the Other by both the speaker and the audience. However, while it would be possible to carry out a more detailed analysis where every instance of a personal pronouns was individually categorized into one of the semantic groups, doing so would involve analysing hundreds of thousands of items, which was not possible in the scope of the present study. Nevertheless, I would argue that the overall impression derived from this rough categorization is valid for identifying trends and general tendencies in political language.

5. Analysis of diachronic trends

To begin with a general statement, the overall frequency of personal pronouns shows a slight positive cline over the timeline (Figure 2). [10] If treated as a linear correlation, the trend is not particularly strong (Pearson’s r=0.21, R2=0.04), but it does suggest that the politicians of our time tend to use personal pronouns somewhat more frequently than the politicians of earlier eras, especially going back a century or more.

Figure 2. Scatter plot of combined frequency of personal pronouns against the timeline.

Figure 2. Scatter plot of combined frequency of personal pronouns against the timeline.

However, when we start focusing on specific semantic categories of pronouns, things get much more interesting. For clarity, each of the following figures shows two categories of pronouns only, starting with self references and audience references (Figure 3). The polynomial lines are fitted to show trends more clearly. [11] In the scatter plots, the dots represent individual speeches, with the horizontal axis denoting time and the vertical axis denoting standardized frequency per thousand words.

Figure 3. Scatter plot of SELF references and AUDIENCE references.

Figure 3. Scatter plot of SELF references and AUDIENCE references.

The overall pattern shows that references to self and to the audience are both at their most frequent during the latter half of the nineteenth century, going into a slight decline at the turn of the century. The change in the frequency of audience references is slight, however. By contrast, the decline in self-references during the early part of the twentieth century was likely motivated by broad changes in democratic society, where self-promotion was increasingly disliked and instead politicians had a greater need to present themselves as representatives and members of the electorate.

This may also be interpreted at least in part as a reflection of the changing media landscape. As political speeches were increasingly broadcast to non-immediate audiences, that is, to audiences who may be listening to the speech by radio or watching it on television, the lack of proximity somewhat dilutes the effect of emotive and affective self-reference. The newfound incline in self-references observed from the 1970s onward may in turn signal a change to a more person-centred style of politics and, though this is more hypothetical, improvements in audiovisual technology which allow close-up images of speakers to be broadcast, making the communicative style more immediate and thus making the use of self-references more effective. [12]

Clear evidence of the shift from person-centred rhetoric to a more group-centred style is seen in Figure 4. The frequency of inclusive references using the group indexical pronouns we, us and our increases dramatically at the same time as self-references go into decline. Notably, even though self-references turn back into an incline toward the end of the twentieth century, inclusive references continue to increase even further at the same time.

Figure 4. Scatterplot of INCLUSIVE references and SELF references.

Figure 4. Scatterplot of INCLUSIVE references and SELF references.

The frequency change in inclusive references is the most dramatic difference observed in the use of personal pronouns. As the scatterplot shows (Figure 4), this does not mean that there were no speakers who used inclusive references in high frequencies during the nineteenth century, but it is clear that doing so was much less common then than it is today. Let us consider two somewhat extreme examples, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1852 address in Edinburgh on his re-election to parliament, and Gordon Brown’s 2004 speech at the Labour party conference in Brighton as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Gordon Brown © OGLGordon Brown © OGL

I greatly doubt whether it will be found possible to carry through any well-matured and complete plan of improvement if you have not the Government heartily with you; and I must say that from the present Administration I can, as to that matter, expect nothing good. What I am to expect from them precisely I do not know whether the most obstinate opposition to every change, or the most insane and violent change. For if I look to their actions and conduct, I find the gravest reasons for apprehending that they may at one time resist the most just demands, and at another time, from the merest caprice, propose the wildest innovations. And I will tell you why I entertain this opinion. I am sorry that, in doing so, I must mention the name of a gentleman for whom, personally, I have the highest respect I mean Mr. Walpole, the Secretary of State for the Home Department. My own acquaintance with him is slight, but I know him well by character. I believe him to be an honourable, an excellent, an able man. No man is more esteemed in private life; but of his public conduct I must claim the right to speak with freedom; and I do so with the less scruple because of that freedom he has himself set me an example, and because I am really now speaking on the defense. (Macaulay 1852)

Macaulay’s speech is clearly highly personal in orientation. The speaker’s personal opinions and views are communicated directly — “And I will tell you why I entertain this opinion”, “I know him well by character” — and the speech maintains a single point-of-view, namely the speaker’s, and relies entirely on the speaker’s personal prestige and charisma.

Photogravure of Thomas Babington Macaulay by Antoine Claudet. Public domain.Photogravure of Thomas Babington Macaulay by Antoine Claudet. © Public domain.

From being the party not trusted with the economy, this conference should be proud that Labour is today the only party trusted with the economy. But for me, for us the Labour party, and for the country, this is not enough. We have created 1.8 million jobs. But for us, the Labour party, this is not enough.

We have lifted one million children and more than one million pensioners out of poverty. But we must do more. We have introduced the minimum wage and raised it by 35 per cent to make work pay. But we will do more. We have created one million child care places. But we will go further. Economic stability and new incentives have helped create 300,000 new businesses. But that is not enough. We will not rest until millions denied opportunity can achieve their aspirations and until the three million children living in poverty are growing up in a Britain where child poverty has been eradicated for good. We will not rest until Britain's public services - starved for two decades, now being rebuilt - are reformed and renewed, an example to the world and the collective pride of our nation. We will not rest until enterprise is open to all, creating hundreds more businesses in every community, and where the millions of men and women - some lone parents, some on incapacity benefit - who want to work will have the right to work, in a Britain where there is full employment in every region and every nation of our country. (Brown 2004)

Brown’s speech, by contrast, makes use of what Fetzer and Bull (2008: 281) describe as “the communicative strategy of over-inclusion”. By switching between his own thoughts and those of the party, the speaker first creates unity between himself, the party and the country, conceptually presenting all three as aspect of the same: “But for me, for us the Labour party, and for the country, this is not enough”. As Moberg and Eriksson (2013: 320) argue, “By selecting we rather than another pronominal form a speaker introduces a bond with her interlocutors. Through this other persons are brought into an obligation pattern and the speaker speaks as a representative of a group rather than as a self.” Once this is done, Brown continues with a series of boasts about the successes of the trinity, each followed by an aspirational statement promising that even more will be done in the future.

Although the two excerpts above already exemplify the difference between nineteenth and twentieth century speaking styles, there is one specific category of speech where the diachronic stylistic switch is particularly salient, namely the inaugural address of American presidents. Figure 5 shows the dramatic change: while nearly all early inaugural addresses were focused on the president himself, after Benjamin Harrison in 1889, there is only one inaugural speech, Herbert Hoover’s in 1929, in which the newly elected president used self-references more than inclusive references to the country. [13] [14] Hoover uses the first person singular 53 times and the first person plural only 11 times.

Figure 5. Scatterplot of the personal pronouns I and we in American presidential inaugural addresses.

Figure 5. Scatterplot of the personal pronouns I and we in American presidential inaugural addresses.

The overwhelmingly clear stylistic shift that takes appears to begin at the end of the nineteenth century onward can be explained both by the processes of democratization and mediatisation. Following the Civil War in 1861 to 1865, there was considerable need to bring the country together and to use a more inclusive voice. While the first presidents frequently used the inaugural address to speak about themselves and the responsibilities of the office, presidents of the post-Civil War era started focusing more on the country. [15] The following quote from the beginning of Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address in 1801 demonstrates the personal and modest style of the early speeches.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. © Public domain.Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. © Public domain.

CALLED upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye — when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking.

By contrast, the next example from the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address shows the new inclusive style in full effect.

President Bill Clinton. © Public domain.President Bill Clinton. © Public domain.

My fellow citizens. Today we celebrate the mystery of American renewal. This ceremony is held in the depth of winter. But, by the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring. A spring reborn in the world's oldest democracy, that brings forth the vision and courage to reinvent America. When our founders boldly declared America's independence to the world and our purposes to the Almighty, they knew that America, to endure, would have to change. Not change for change's sake, but change to preserve America's ideals—life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Though we march to the music of our time, our mission is timeless. Each generation of Americans must define what it means to be an American.

This need for inclusivity was intensified further during the World Wars, after which time it appears to have become a fixed standard. Significantly, the same time period also witnessed the appearance of broadcast media in the form of radio and television, and, in more recent times, of online media.

Returning to the full dataset, the plot for Inclusive and Audience references is given in Figure 6. Both types of reference can be used for essentially the same purpose, addressing the audience directly, but while the former includes the speaker as a member of the same in-group, the latter posits a dialogic relationship between the speaker and the audience, as seen earlier in Figure 3. Looking at Figure 6, we see that the frequency of Audience references has remained quite stable over the two-hundred-year timeline, while Inclusive references have increased, as noted earlier.

Figure 6. Scatterplot of INCLUSIVE references and AUDIENCE references.

Figure 6. Scatterplot of INCLUSIVE references and AUDIENCE references.

In the following example from Donald Trump’s 2015 speech announcing his candidacy for President, Trump switches repeatedly between references to Self, the Audience and two in-groups: the Trump organisation and the people. This establishes a subtle message, which links the two in-groups together, suggesting that by siding with Trump, the audience can share the success of the Trump business empire. The direct Audience references come toward the end of the excerpt, when Trump starts addressing the audience directly as he starts talking about the sorry state of infrastructure in America. By using the second person plural (“you have all these disastrous airports”), he emphasises the difference between the Audience’s low-quality airports and the luxurious airports of the foreigners. Importantly, while Trump says “we’re in a third world country” twice, fostering a sense of in-group camaraderie, he never once uses we or our when talking about American airports because that could intuitively suggest that Trump, too, has conceptual ownership of them.

I look at the roads being built all over the country, and I say I can build those things for one-third. What they do is unbelievable, how bad.
You know, we’re building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Old Post Office, we’re converting it into one of the world’s great hotels. It’s gonna be the best hotel in Washington, D.C. We got it from the General Services Administration in Washington. The Obama administration. We got it. It was the most highly sought after — or one of them, but I think the most highly sought after project in the history of General Services. We got it. People were shocked, Trump got it.
Well, I got it for two reasons. Number one, we’re really good. Number two, we had a really good plan. And I’ll add in the third, we had a great financial statement. Because the General Services, who are terrific people, by the way, and talented people, they wanted to do a great job. And they wanted to make sure it got built.
So we have to rebuild our infrastructure, our bridges, our roadways, our airports. You come into La Guardia Airport, it’s like we’re in a third world country. You look at the patches and the 40-year-old floor. They throw down asphalt, and they throw.
You look at these airports, we are like a third world country. And I come in from China and I come in from Qatar and I come in from different places, and they have the most incredible airports in the world. You come to back to this country and you have LAX, disaster. You have all of these disastrous airports. We have to rebuild our infrastructure.

The final plot (Figure 7) shows the relationship between inclusive references and references to the Other (they, them, their, he, his, him, she, her). Here, again, we see a shift in the early 1900s, when references to the in-group overtake references to those outside it. Note the consistency of the difference, as attested by the scatter plot: nearly all nineteenth century speeches feature a higher frequency of Other references and nearly all speeches after 1950 feature a higher frequency of in-group references.

Figure 7. Scatterplot of INCLUSIVE references and OTHER references.

Figure 7. Scatterplot of INCLUSIVE references and OTHER references.

The following excerpt from Anna Howard Shaw’s 1915 speech, delivered in New York City at the New York State equal suffrage campaign, serves as a good example of very frequent use of they:

Anna Howard Shaw. © Public domain.Anna Howard Shaw. © Public domain.

Now, nobody can deny that they are sincere, honest, and earnest men. No one can deny that the Puritans were men of profound conviction, and yet these men who gave up everything in behalf of an ideal, hardly established their communities in this new country before they began to practice exactly the same sort of persecutions on other men which had been practiced upon them. They settled in their communities on the New England shores and when they formed their compacts by which they governed their local societies, they permitted no man to have a voice in the affairs unless he was a member of the church, and not a member of any church, but a member of the particular church which dominated the particular community in which he happened to be. In Massachusetts they drove the Baptists down to Rhode Island; in Connecticut they drove the Presbyterians over to New Jersey; they burned the Quakers in Massachusetts and ducked the witches, and no colony, either Catholic or Protestant allowed a Jew to have a voice. And so a man must worship God according to the conscience of the particular community in which he was located, and yet they called that religious freedom, they were not able to live the ideal of religious liberty, and from that time to this the men of this government have been following along the same line of inconsistency, while they too have been following a vision of equal grandeur and power. (Shaw 1915)

As the previous figures illustrate, self-references follow a pattern of decline from the beginning of the nineteenth century all the way to approximately 1960s, where they appear to turn into an incline. Inclusive references, by stark contrast, experience an incline during the same period, reaching a plateau in the 1960s. The two trend lines cross at the turn of the century, but it is safe to say that the main shift really takes place in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Audience references remain almost unchanged throughout the two centuries.

In addition to the needs of addressing the immediate audience in a compelling fashion, the rise of Inclusive references in particular can also be linked to the emergence of national and international political entities as key players in the political field during the twentieth century. In such contexts, the conceptual in-group can comprise nations states, political or institutional entities, which are pronominally referred to in speeches as if they were animate entities. To exemplify this in action, let us finish with an excerpt from Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 speech on foreign policy, the newly appointed Prime Minister outlines international relations by strongly aligning Britain with the United States and Europe.

Margaret Thatcher. © CC BY-SA 3.0.Margaret Thatcher. © CC BY-SA 3.0.

Our democratic systems have made it possible to organize our relationships with one another on a healthy basis. The North Atlantic Alliance and the European Community are - and remain - free associations of free peoples. Policies are frankly debated. Of course the debates are often lively and occasionally heated. But those debates are a sign of strength just as the regimented agreements of the Communist alliances are a mark of weakness.
The argument now going on in the European Community is a case in point. The Community is used to debate, often difficult and prolonged. We are seeing at present something more serious than many of the disputes which have taken place in the past. But the interests that unite the members of the Community are stronger than those which divide them - particularly when viewed in the light of other international problems. I believe that these common interests will assert themselves. I am confident that an acceptable solution will be found and that the European Community will emerge fortified from the debate. And a strong Europe is the best partner for the United States. It is on the strength of that partnership that the strength of the free world depends.
The last asset I want to mention today is the West's relationship with the countries of the Third World. Neither recent events; nor past injustices; nor the outdated rhetoric of anti-colonialism can disguise the real convergence of interest between the Third World and the West. It is we in the West who have the experience and contacts the Third World needs. We supply most of the markets for their goods and their raw materials. We supply most of the technology they require. We provide them with private investment as well as Government aid.

Thatcher uses the first person plural in references to the in-group, or “the West”, while reserving the second person plural for the out-group, “the Third World”. At the end of the excerpt, Thatcher repeatedly alternates between we and them as she argues that the West “supplies” and “provides” the Third World with everything.

6. Conclusions

This exploratory study takes a first step toward a more comprehensive description of quantitative changes in Anglophone political speeches during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [16] The results show that the use of personal pronouns and possessive determiners has remained relatively unchanged over the timeline with one significant exception, namely, that the frequency of the inclusive references increases dramatically from the early twentieth century onward, coinciding with the introduction and rapid expansion of electronic mass media (Figure 8).

The strength of the phenomenon is such that it merits the label rhetorical threshold. The evidence from SCPS suggests that the beginning of radio broadcasting coincides, if not ushers in, the beginning of a more we-focused style of political speaking, which occurs concurrently with a temporary decline of speaker-focus. Following the Second World War and the introduction of television, self-references by political speakers turn back into an include, while inclusive references also continue to rise. The data is too scarce to allow more than anecdotal conclusions about the era of digital media, but there is some indication that the self-referential style may be turning into a decline again. Notably, there is also weak evidence to suggest that audience references may have been on a slight increase since the beginning of the Internet era.

Figure 8. Fitted polynomial lines of the four categories of referential pronouns against the timeline.

Figure 8. Fitted polynomial lines of the four categories of referential pronouns against the timeline.

Although this empirical finding can be interpreted as indirectly supporting early twentieth-century observations about a contemporaneous transition from an individuated to a communal sense of self as the predominant mode of personal identity around the turn of the century, it is important to note that there are limits to the extent to which can read changes in political language as reflecting and taking advantage of the contemporary zeitgeist. [17] Indeed, the dramatic increase in the use of we can also be interpreted as supporting the conclusion of earlier research into pronoun use, in which it has been argued that in carefully crafted political discourse, inclusive references are deliberately used to misdirect the listener and to leave the burden of interpretation to the audience.


[1] For an introduction to corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis, with discussion of the respective merits of the two disciplines, see Baker et al. (2008) and Cheng (2013). [Go back up]

[2] See Kuypers and King (2001). [Go back up]

[3] A more specialized approach to the topic is Political Discourse Analysis, defined by van Dijk (1997a) as a field that combined an essentially impartial linguistic analysis of political discourse with critical elements associated with Critical Discourse Analysis. [Go back up]

[4] It is important to note that the present study focuses exclusively on speeches delivered by politicians and political activists in political contexts. The study does not include political interviews, biographies and autobiographies, articles, columns, blogs or tweets. [Go back up]

[5] For a general introduction, see Esser and Strömbäck (eds.) (2014); for an excellent introduction to mediatization in the linguistic framework, see Androtsopoulos (2014); and for an introduction to media influence on language use, see Sayers (2014). [Go back up]

[6] Although the rest of the discussion will concern primarily personal pronouns, it is worth noting that pronouns other than personal have been studied from the CDA and sociolinguistic perspectives. For example, Acton and Potts (2014) shows how Sarah Palin’s use of demonstratives helped foster a sense of shared experience with her audience. [Go back up]

[7] For seminal discussion of indexical presuppositions and indexical creativity, see Silverstein (1976). [Go back up]

[8] The sources are given in the corpus metadata which is always distributed with the corpus. All the online archives used are available open access. [Go back up]

[9] The older speeches typically follow a more formal convention. In many cases this reflects the fact that the speech was not transcribed live but instead distributed in writing after the event. [Go back up]

[10] Note that the fitted lines in all the scatter plots are polynomial. [Go back up]

[11] When it comes to diachronic linguistic data, nonlinear fitted lines are nearly always preferable to linear fits. As clearly demonstrated by the graphs used in this paper, linear fits would grossly misrepresent periodic and oscillating phenomena. [Go back up]

[12] Fox and Park (2006), studying pronoun choice among embedded and nonembedded war reporters during the 2003 Iraq War, show that reporters appeared to communicate their objectivity by careful balancing I and we references. Likewise political speakers must walk a fine line between appearing to share their own thoughts and thereby appearing intimate and genuinely human, and framing the discourse as a joint cause by evoking the inclusive group indexical we. As the evidence shows, few politicians do only one, most opting to use both strategies. [Go back up]

[13] Watch video footage of President Herbert Hoover from 1929 [Go back up]

[14] Hoover’s inaugural address was the first to be recorded on a newsreel. [Go back up]

[15] For valuable discussion of this shift, see Kovalyova (2005). Regarding the style of the early presidents, Kovalyova notes that ”regardless of the number of points an [Inaugural Address] covered, the figure responsible for their implementation remained the president himself. That is why entering the highest office of the land, he talked – first and foremost – about his duties” (41). [Go back up]

[16] These issues will be examined in the Democratization, Mediatization and Language Practices in Britain 1700–1950 project (DEMLANG), funded by the Academy of Finland 2016–2020. The project PI is Päivi Pahta and the senior researchers are Turo Hiltunen, Minna Nevala, Arja Nurmi, Minna Palander-Collin, and Jukka Tyrkkö. [Go back up]

[17] For an excellent overview, see Postoutenko (2009). [Go back up]


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