Language and Power

Language has the potential to yield tremendous, influential power - just take a look at some of the world’s most ‘successful’ dictators. Hitler managed to convince thousands of people to help him undertake one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen, but how? The answer is in language's influential power. 

Language and Power Language and Power

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Table of contents

    Dictators aren’t the only people who have a way with words. The media, advertising agencies, educational institutions, politicians, religious institutes, and the monarchy (the list goes on) all use language to help them maintain authority or gain influence over others.

    So, how exactly is language used to create and maintain power? This article will:

    • Examine various types of power

    • Explore different language features used to represent power

    • Analyse discourse in relation to power

    • Introduce theories that are key to understanding the relationship between language and power.

    English language and power

    According to linguist Shân Wareing (1999), there are three main types of power:¹

    • Political power - power held by people with authority, such as politicians and the police.

    • Personal power - power based on an individual's occupation or role in society. For example, a headteacher would likely hold more power than a teaching assistant.

    • Social group power - power held by a group of people due to certain social factors, such as class, ethnicity, gender, or age.

    Which social groups do you think hold the most power in society, why?

    Wareing suggested that these three types of power can be divided into instrumental power and influential power. People, or organisations, can hold instrumental power, influential power, or both.

    Let’s take a look at these types of power in more detail.

    Instrumental power

    Instrumental power is seen as authoritative power. Typically speaking, someone who has instrumental power has power simply because of who they are. These people do not have to convince anyone of their power or persuade anyone to listen to them; others must listen to them simply because of the authority they have.

    Headteachers, government officials, and the police are figures who have instrumental power.

    People or organisations with instrumental power use language to maintain or enforce their authority.

    Features of instrumental power language include:

    • Formal register

    • Imperative sentences - giving requests, demands, or advice

    • Modal verbs - e.g., 'you should'; 'you must'

    • Mitigation - using language to reduce the seriousness of what is being said

    • Conditional sentences - e.g., ‘if you don’t respond soon, further action will be taken.'

    • Declarative statements - e.g., 'in today's class we will look at declarative statements.'

    • Latinate words - words derived from or imitating Latin

    Influential power

    Influential power refers to when a person (or group of people) does not have any authority but is trying to gain power and influence over others. Those who wish to gain influential power may use language to persuade others to believe in them or support them. This type of power is often found in politics, the media, and marketing.

    Features of influential power language include:

    • Assertions - presenting opinions as facts, e.g., ‘we all know that England is the greatest country in the world’

    • Metaphors - the use of established metaphors can reassure the audience and evoke the power of memory, establishing a bond between the speaker and the listener.

    • Loaded language - language that can evoke strong emotions and/or exploit feelings

    • Embedded assumptions - e.g., assuming the listener is really interested in what the speaker has to say

    In some spheres of society, such as in politics, both aspects of power are present. Politicians have authority over us, as they impose the laws we must follow; however, they must also try to persuade us to continue voting for them and their policies.

    Language and power examples

    We can see examples of language being used to assert power all around us. Among other reasons, language can be used to make us believe in something or someone, to persuade us to buy something or vote for someone, and to ensure we follow the law and behave as ‘good citizens’.

    With that in mind, where do you think we most commonly see language being used to assert power?

    Here are a few examples we came up with:

    • In the media

    • The news

    • Advertising

    • Politics

    • Speeches

    • Education

    • Law

    • Religion

    Can you think of any examples you could add to this list?

    Language and power in politics

    Politics and power (both instrumental and influential power) go hand in hand. Politicians use political rhetoric in their speeches to persuade others to give them power.

    Rhetoric: the art of using language effectively and persuasively; therefore, political rhetoric refers to the strategies used to effectively create persuasive arguments in political debates.

    Here are some of the strategies used in political rhetoric:

    • Repetition

    • Rule of three - e.g., Tony Blaire’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ policy

    • Use of 1st person plural pronouns - 'we', 'us'; e.g., the Queen’s use of the royal ‘we’

    • Hyperbole - exaggeration

    • Rhetorical questions

    • Leading questions - e.g., 'you don’t want your country to be run by a clown, do you?'

    • Changes in tone and intonation

    • Use of lists

    • Using imperative verbs - verbs used to create imperative sentences, e.g., ‘act now’ or ‘speak up’

    • Use of humour

    • Tautology - saying the same thing twice but using different words to do so, e.g., ‘it’s 7 am in the morning’

    • Prevarication - not answering direct questions

    Can you think of any politicians who regularly use any of these strategies? Do you think they create persuasive arguments?

    Language and Power Image of politician StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - 'Are you ready for a brighter future?'

    Features of Language and Power

    We’ve seen some examples of how language is used to represent power, but let’s take a look at some more language features in both spoken and written discourse that are used to maintain and enforce power.

    Lexical choice

    • Emotive language - e.g., emotive adjectives used in the House of Commons include 'depraved', 'sickening', and 'unimaginable'

    • Figurative language - e.g., metaphors, similes, and personification

    • Forms of address - someone with power may refer to others by their first names but expect to be addressed more formally, i.e., 'miss', 'sir', 'ma'am' etc.

    • Synthetic personalisation - Fairclough (1989) coined the term ‘synthetic personalisation’ to describe how powerful institutes address the mass as individuals to create a feeling of friendliness and reinforce their power.²

    Can you identify any of these language features used to maintain and enforce power in the following quote?

    And you have changed the face of Congress, the Presidency, and the political process itself. Yes, you, my fellow Americans, have forced the spring. Now we must do the work the season demands.

    (Bill Clinton, January 20, 1993)

    In Bill Clinton’s first inaugural speech, he utilised synthetic personalisation to address the American people individually and repeatedly used the pronoun ‘you’. He also used figurative language, using spring (the season) as a metaphor for the country moving forward and away from debt.

    Grammar

    • Interrogatives - asking the listener/reader questions

    • Modal verbs - e.g., 'you should'; 'you must'

    • Imperative sentences - commands or requests, e.g., 'vote now!'

    Can you identify any of these grammatical features in the following Coca-Cola advertisement?

    Language and power image of coca-cola advert StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - Coca-Cola advert and slogan.

    This advert from Coca-Cola uses the imperative sentence, 'open happiness', to tell the audience what to do and persuade them to buy Coca-Cola's product.

    Phonology

    • Alliteration - the repetition of letters or sounds

    • Assonance - the repetition of vowel sounds

    • Rising and falling intonation

    Can you identify any of these phonological features in this UK Conservative Party election campaign slogan?

    Strong and stable leadership. (2007)

    Here, the alliteration of the letter 'S' makes the slogan more memorable and gives it staying power.

    Spoken conversational features

    We can examine discourse in conversations to see who holds power based on which language features they use.

    Here is a handy chart to help you recognise the dominant and submissive participants in a conversation:

    The dominant participant

    The submissive participant

    Sets the subject and tone of the conversation

    Responds to the dominant participant

    Changes the direction of the conversation

    Follows the directional change

    Talks the most

    Listens the most

    Interrupts and overlaps others

    Avoids interrupting others

    May be unresponsive when they have had enough of the conversation

    Uses more formal forms of address ('sir', 'ma'am' etc.)

    Language and power theories and research

    Understanding language and power theories are key to identifying when language is being used to maintain power.

    When engaging in conversation, people who have power or wish to have it will utilise specific strategies when talking to help them establish their dominance. Some of these strategies include interrupting others, being polite or impolite, committing face-saving and face-threatening acts, and flouting Grice’s Maxims.

    Not sure what some of those terms mean? Don’t worry! This brings us to the key theorists in language and power and their arguments, including:

    • Fairclough's Language and Power (1984)

    • Goffman's Face Work Theory (1967) and Brown and Levinson's Politeness Theory (1987)

    • Coulthard and Sinclair's Initiation-Response-Feedback Model (1975)

    • Grice's Conversational Maxims (1975)

    Fairclough

    In Language and Power (1984), Fairclough explains how language serves as a tool to maintain and create power in society.

    Fairclough suggested that many encounters (this is a broad term, encompassing not only conversations but also reading advertisements, for example) are unequal and that the language we use (or are constrained to use) reflects the power structures in society. Fairclough argues that, in a capitalist society, power relations are typically divided into the dominant and dominated classes, i.e., business or landowners and their workers. Fairclough based a lot of his work on Michel Foucault's work on discourse and power.

    Fairclough states that we should analyse language to recognise when it is being used by the powerful to persuade or influence us. Fairclough named this analytical practice 'critical discourse analysis'.

    A key part of critical discourse analysis can be split into two disciplines:

    • Power in discourse - the lexicon, strategies, and language structures used to create power

    • Power behind discourse - The sociological and ideological reasons behind who is asserting power over others and why.

    Fairclough also discussed the power behind advertising and coined the term ‘synthetic personalisation’ (remember we discussed this earlier!). Synthetic personalisation is a technique that large corporations use to create a sense of friendship between themselves and their potential customers by addressing them on a personal level.

    Goffman, Brown, and Levinson

    Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson created their Politeness Theory (1987) based on Erving Goffman’s Face Work theory (1967). Face Work refers to the act of preserving one’s ‘face’ and appealing to or preserving another's ‘face’.3

    'Face' is an abstract concept and has nothing to do with your physical face. Goffman recommends thinking of your ‘face’ more like a mask we wear in social situations.

    Brown and Levinson stated that the levels of politeness we use with others are often dependent on power relations - the more powerful they are, the more polite we are.

    Two important terms to understand here are ‘face-saving acts’ (preventing others from feeling publicly embarrassed) and ‘face-threatening acts’ (behaviour that may embarrass others). Those in less powerful positions are more likely to perform face-saving acts for those with more power.

    Sinclair and Coulthard

    In 1975, Sinclair and Coulthard introduced the Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) model.4 The model can be used to describe and highlight power relations between the teacher and the student in a classroom. Sinclair and Coulthard state that the teacher (the one with the power) initiates the discourse by asking a question, the student (the one without the power) gives a response, and the teacher then provides some sort of feedback.

    Teacher - 'What did you do this weekend?'

    Student - 'I went to the museum.'

    Teacher - 'That sounds nice. What did you learn?'

    Grice

    Grice’s conversational maxims, also known as 'The Gricean Maxims', are based on Grice’s Cooperative Principle, which aims to explain how people achieve effective communication in everyday situations.

    In Logic and Conversation (1975), Grice introduced his four conversational maxims. They are:

    • Maxim of Quality

    • Maxim of Quantity

    • Maxim of Relevance

    • Maxim of Manner

    These maxims are based on Grice’s observation that anyone who wished to engage in meaningful conversation usually attempts to be truthful, informative, relevant, and clear.

    However, these conversational maxims are not always followed by everyone and are often violated or flouted:

    • When maxims are violated, they are broken secretly, and it’s usually considered quite serious (such as lying to someone).

    • When maxims are flouted, this is considered less severe than violating a maxim and is done far more often. Being ironic, using metaphors, pretending to mishear someone, and using vocabulary you know your listener won’t understand are all examples of flouting Grice’s Maxims.

    Grice suggested that those with more power, or those wishing to create the illusion of having more power, are more likely to flout Grice’s maxims during conversations.

    Grice’s conversational maxims, and the flouting of them to create a sense of power, can be applied to any text that appears conversational, including advertising.

    Language and Power - Key takeaways

    • According to Wareing, there are three main types of power: political power, personal power, and social group power. These types of power can be divided into either instrumental or influential power.

    • Instrumental power is held by those who have authority over others due to who they are (such as the Queen). On the other hand, influential power is held by those who aim to influence and persuade others (such as politicians and advertisers).

    • We can see language being used to assert power in the media, the news, advertising, politics, speeches, education, the law, and religion.

    • Some language features used to convey power include rhetorical questions, imperative sentences, alliteration, the rule of three, emotive language, modal verbs, and synthetic personalisation.

    • Key theorists include Fairclough, Goffman, Brown, Levinson, Coulthard and Sinclair, and Grice.


    References

    1. L. Thomas & S. Wareing. Language, Society and Power: An Introduction, 1999.
    2. N. Fairclough. Language and Power, 1989.
    3. E. Goffman. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, 1967.
    4. J. Sinclair and M. Coulthard. Towards an Analysis of Discourse: the English used by Teachers and Pupils, 1975.
    5. Fig. 1: Open Happiness (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Open_Happiness.png) by The Coca-Cola Company https://www.coca-cola.com/) in the public domain.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Power

    What is the relationship between language and power?

    Language can be used as a way of communicating ideas and for asserting or maintaining power over others. Power in discourse refers to the lexicon, strategies, and language structures used to create power. On the other hand, power behind discourse refers to the sociological and ideological reasons behind who is asserting power over others and why.

    How do systems of power intersect with language and communication?

    Those with power (instrumental and influential) can use language features and strategies, such as using imperative sentences, asking rhetorical questions, synthetic personalisation, and flouting Grice’s maxims to help them maintain or create power over others.

    Who are the key theorists in language and power?

    Some of the main theorists include: Foucault, Fairclough, Goffman, Brown and Levinson, Grice, and Coulthard and Sinclair

    What is language and power?

    Language and power refers to the vocabulary and linguistic strategies people use to assert and maintain power over others.

    Why is the power of language important?

    It's important to understand the power of language so we can recognise when language is being used to persuade or influence our thoughts or actions.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Choose the best definition of discourse in accordance with Foucault.

    Fairclough believes that a language is a form of _______?

    What is an assertion?

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