Constructing the convincing political speech

The conditions and aims of the use of the pronominal forms ´I` and ´we` in political language with special focus on the “Sportpalastrede” of Joseph Goebbels

Seminar Paper, 2006

42 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics
2.1. The interaction of Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics in political language
2.2. Definition of Pragmatics as sub-discipline of linguistics

3. Theoretical basis
3.1. Truth, Linguistics and Pragmatics
3.2. Political pronouns and pragmatic implications
3.2.1. Political pronouns
3.2.2. Myself and others
3.2.3. Culture, Topic and Individual

4. The use of pronominal forms in Goebbels` speech
4.1. Analysis
4.2. Resume

5. Summary

I Enclosure
II Annotations
III Bibliography / list of books consulted

1. Introduction

“I think the inherent right of the government to lie to save itself … is basic”

-Arthur Sylvester1-

If today one thinks of politics, politicians and their language there is one opinion that always comes first: All politicians are liars They are smooth-talkers who promise things they cannot fulfil only to get more votes in the coming-up election and they use beautiful words to paraphrase and disguise social injustices.

And in some points this opinion is right. There really is a specific political language used by the politicians to follow certain aims but this has not always to be disguise or circumscription. What many of the citizens simply ignore is the fact, that politicians are dependent from the mass. Without the public there would be no need for politicians. And the same goes for political discussions. Politicians don’t argue with each other because they like it. It is always the fact that a political actor starts political relations with another actor and at the same time with the public. If two politicians talk to each other on the television this is always orchestrated for the people who watch the show. (see Dieckmann 1981: 265) The main reason for every politician to lie or to use special vocabulary is for the purpose of being convincing. This paper analyses the language used by politicians in certain situations to convince people of the correctness of their point of view, in its’ roots, mainly based on the book Politically Speaking: The Pragmatic analysis of Political Language by John Wilson. The main focus of this paper is put to the question of the use of the pronominal forms ´I` and ´we` in political talk, under which conditions the one is used and when the other and what for. It is not arguable that politicians always have a reason for using ´I` or ´we` in different contexts, especially in written speeches that are planned and very well prepared. Also the difference between scripted and unscripted speeches will be touched in this paper. To employ the theoretical basis that is provided here, in the last section the famous “Sportpalast”-speech of Joseph Goebbels from 1943 will be analysed with regard to the use of different pronominal forms. The final summary shall bundle the gained information to a logical minimum and draw some conclusions from it. It will show if political use of speech is intentionally manipulating and disguising facts, especially in the example of Goebbels or if the use of language in politics does not differ in great parts from the day-to-day use at home.

2. Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics

2.1. The interaction of Sociolinguistics and Pragmatics in political language

Normally sociolinguistics and pragmatics are two different sections of linguistics. Sociolinguistics considers

´Who speaks (or writes) what language (or what language variety) to whom and when to what end` (Fishman, 1972b, p.46), that is, the social distribution of linguistic items, to considering how a particular linguistic variable might relate to the formulation of a specific grammatical rule in a particular language or dialect, and even to the processes through which language change” (Wardhaugh 2002: 16)

For my purpose, sociolinguistic is important because I intend to analyse the effect the social background of a political profession has on the use of language. The field of Pragmatics is also very crucial for the political conversation as political action is nearly always linguistic action. And if it is not directly linguistic action, the political action has still to be transferred to the mass by linguistic means. (see Dieckmann 1981: 264) For this reason the social context, the political environment, influences the speaker to a high degree. Every conversation happens only on the basis of the knowledge that there is not only the mass that watches the political happenings but also the mass media that observes every single step the politicians make. Because of the fact that politicians produce language for the public, the two contexts, in which language is seen in a pragmatic analysis, are important here. For this reason both disciplines will be combined in this paper.

2.2. Definition of Pragmatics as sub-discipline of linguistics

Pragmatics is a sub-discipline of the huge sector of linguistics. But restricting pragmatics to a purely linguistic subject would be the wrong thing to do. A pragmatic consideration always deals with the user (or speaker) in his or her social environment or context. It cannot limit itself to grammatically encoded aspects of context. (see Mey 1993: 6) Nearly all communication in society happens by means of language. That is why society controls the access of a human being to the linguistic and communicative means, stored in the brain. Therefore pragmatics is the study of the way humans use language in communication. It bases itself on a study of premises and determiners and how they affect and effectualize the use of human language. (see Mey 1993: 6) Pragmatics studies the use of language in human communication as determined by the conditions of society” (see Mey 1993: 6). It is basically concerned with the interpretation of linguistic meaning in specific context. There are two kinds of context that are relevant, the linguistic context and the situational context. (see Fromkin/Rodman 1998: 190)

The opinions about what is included in pragmatics are divided. There is one group which believes that pragmatics must concentrate on the role and functioning of meaning as it is displayed in the linguistic system only. This means, how context becomes encoded within the structure of the language. Another group concentrates on the linguistic system but also on the formal status of socially or interactionally oriented rules of behaviour and how they guide the process of communication. And a third interpretation includes the analysis of conversation and regards only those rules as legitimate empirical pragmatic phenomena which are generated through the inductive analysis of participant activities. (see Wilson 1990: 1) John Wilson, a linguist who deals with political pragmatics cited another definition of pragmatics:

Linguistic pragmatics…is as the intersection of a number of fields within and outside cognitive science: not only linguists, cognitive psychology, and philosophy,…but also sociology…rhetoric. (Green quoted in: Wilson 1990: 2)

Pragmatics as an area is relatively new and is still shaping and establishing agreed parameters of practice. Also the concise definitions of core categories and accepted procedures of analysis are still in progress (see Wilson 1990: 2). Political pragmatics can also be regarded “as the study of the selection and manipulation of pragmatic elements within specified communicative contexts” (Wilson 1990: 2).

Pragmatics can furthermore be defined as being concerned with the way in which meanings are constructed or calculated within particular contexts. What is implied in this definition is that we can mean much more than we actually say. Wilson further divides pragmatically based arguments into tree parts: the L-pragmatic argument, which focuses only on how contextual meaning is encoded in the system of the language, the P-pragmatic argument, which is based on general principles and rules of human behaviour and the O-pragmatic argument, where meaning is constructed by the negotiation of talk within context. (see Wilson 1990: 4)

3. Theoretical basis

3.1. Truth, Linguistics and Pragmatics

There is a tension between our personal expectations of political behaviour and what reality is like. In the field of political language this gap is very obvious. The underlying premise here is that the message of a politician for the electorate creates a controlled cognitive environment from which any interpretation is manipulated. The strongest form of this opinion is that the linguistic system we employ controls our thought. (see Wilson 1990: 101)

As a kind of theory there exists the transformational principle which claims that every posed question or sentence is the result of a transformation that takes place in the head of every speaker. This means, questions are not asked in the direct way, but they undergo a specific transformation. But the hearer is capable to recover this transformation.2 But how can one manipulate language for ideological purposes if the hearers or interpreters can reinterpret what has been said in its underlying form? The point here is that Wilson takes the base structure to be a form of underlying reality. Then all competent language-users should be able to access this underlying reality. Therefore the audience is always able to subvert the attempt of a manipulation, by using language to present the world in a specific manner, by simply retransforming the said things into the underlying form. This takes for granted that there really is an underlying form, or noted truth. But Wilson further notes that there is no underlying reality which is transformed to suit special needs but there are rather competing realities which are reflected in various structures we employ to talk about the world. The linguist Murray Edelman for example suggests that the influence of language is so big, that it shapes beliefs and perceptions to such an extent, that politicians not simply use language to describe or explain events, but that language itself is a part of the events. (see Wilson 1990: 14)

An example for the specific use of words in political language is the word ´pacification`. This word is often used to refer to “the bombing of innocent villages“ (Orwell 1969: 225 cited in: Wilson 1990: 17). If one has a look at the related words such as ´passive`, ´pacify`, ´pacifier` and ´pacification` it is noticeable that the connotations are essentially concerned with peacefulness, not violence. Certainly, words and sentences are used by politicians in an emotive manner. They want to create solidarity and arouse emotions like fear, hate or joy. These aspects of meaning are intentional, that means they are motivated by the speaker’s aim of achieving particular goals in fields of human interaction. What is also immanent to, not exclusively but to a great extent, political language is what Lycan calls a ´secondary meaning`. This includes all meanings that are not part of the sentence’s logical form. Then he distinguishes ´invited inferences`. They are highly dependent on specific aspects of general world and background knowledge. Finally there are presuppositions. Presuppositions are an element of inferred information which emerges from the use of specific linguistic forms. (see Wilson 1990: 20) Most of all the implications are important in political talk. With specific implications politicians can direct hearer’s interpretations without overt responsibility for any interference the hearer makes. Implications are also important to create a certain ´face` of a politician. This can be done by the way he or she behaves towards others and by the way they expect others to behave. A very popular example of an implication that was true is a quote from Nixon concerning the Watergate affair:

No one presently employed in the White House participated in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. (Wilson 1990: 22)

Here the hearer could implicate that perhaps a number of former employees was involved in the break-in. This has not necessarily to be the case but as we now know, it was like this. On the surface the statement answered the question if members of the White House participated in the break-in. In this case Nixon achieved his goal. He completely excluded participation of a member of the White House and his use of specific pragmatic aspects of language has not been recognised by the journalists so that he did not have to face any consequences. He did not manipulate the thoughts of the journalists. He simply selected a particular picture of the world which suited his purposes. The reporter, nevertheless, were free to select their own focus. They simply did not do that. Although this is no form of thought control it can be considered to be a form of manipulation.

3.2. Political pronouns and pragmatic implications

3.2.1. Political pronouns

The social and general consequences of pronominal use are already accepted. In certain societies the pronominal choice is affected by the perceived roles of the speaker or hearer. The use of ´one`, for example, as a first-person pronoun indicates some degree of formality, whereas in a number of British dialects people use ´yous` as a plural form instead of ´you`. These examples reflect the sociolinguistic nature of pronominal systems. Certain uses may also reflect dimensions such as formality/informality, status, solidarity, power, class or sex. If you take the use of ´yous`: For the speaker, the dialectic word and the standard English word ´you` are substitutable. If he or she uses the one or the other does not make any difference, but it might affect the hearer’s perception of the speaker. In pragmatic terms it is also possible to use pronominal forms to manipulate the meaning per se intentionally. A good example for this is Churchill’s use of ´we` in the speech following the Dunkirk evacuation in1940. It is called ´exclusive we`. When Churchill said ´we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds`, the ´we` does not include Churchill himself. He was an old man and brought out of the country along with other key members of the Gouvernment. In this case the meaning has been manipulated in context. (see Wilson 1990: 46)

3.2.2. Myself and others

Imagine a representative or Gouvernment leader who has the task to explain to the audience, which are the people of the country he lives in, that there will be an increase of the interest rates. He has several options:

(1) Due to the rising balance of payment deficit …
(a) it has been found necessary to increase interest rates.
(b) I have found it necessary to increase interest rates.
(c) we have found it necessary to increase interest rates.

The content of each possible solution is nearly the same. They differ only in the degree of personal involvement of the representative. (a) is an agentless passive and the actor is unidentified. (b) is a clear case of personal commitment but (c) is less clear. It could be the case that the ´we` includes the speaker and some of his fellow members of the Gouvernment or that the ´we` refers in a vague and generic sense to the nation and its’ citizens. The actual involvement of the speaker would then become ambiguous. Grammatically ´we` includes the speaker and one or more other people. In actual political production and use, though, it becomes ambiguous, between the speaker-inclusive ´we` and the speaker-exclusive ´we`. Goffman argued that in everyday talk the use of the exclusive ´we` serves to distance the speaker from what is being said. In (b) the speaker indicates that he or she is the instigator of the action, opposed to that in (c) the speaker may have played a part in the decision but the degree of responsibility is less clearly defined.(see Wilson 1990: 48f.) Urban talks of this type of distancing as a series of inclusive circles. They start with the ´we` of speaker and one other and extend to the ´we` of humanity.3

The distribution of I/we, in the exclusive or inclusive sense, is clearly marked in political interactions. One of the major aims of a politician is to gain the allegiance of the people or to make them believe that the decisions the representative and his Gouvernment make are the right ones. On the other hand, the outcome of political decisions cannot be guaranteed and therefore another aim, the politician wants to reach at the same time is that he or she is not the only one who is found responsible for the actions. The first-person pronominal can assist the politician in achieving these aims. Very obvious is the change of ´I` and ´we` in the presidential debates between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976.4 Looking mire closely at the initial shift to ´inclusive` we, the question arises why Carter did not shift back to the ´I`, since then he could have claimed sole responsibility for any positive changes in reducing the costs for the administration in Georgia. Well, the use of ´I` in this context might not have been positive but make him look very autocratic. But more importantly, by the use of ´we` Carter spreads the responsibility to his fellow politicians, too. So, if Carter would have used ´I` this could have been associated, in the minds of the audience, with individual responsibility.

Urban discovered, for example, six uses for ´we` in an analysis of the rhetorical choices made by Casper Weinberger, the ex United States Secretary of Defence) in an article on nuclear weapons. The first one is the ´the President and I ´we``, as in sentences like ´The President and I believe that the answer lies in the Strategic Defense Initiative. We hope that strategic defense will eventually render nuclear missiles obsolete`. The second one is the ´The Department of Defence ´we``: Í want to describe the U.S. defense strategies and to summarize the major changes we have made in our thinking at the Department of Defense`. ´The Reagan Administration has made a number of revisions and additions. We have added four pillars of defense policy for the 1990s` is an example for the ´The Reagan Administration ´we``. Then he found a forth use in ´The US Government ´we``, like ´Even with the SALT II restraint the Soviet Union has built more warheads capable of destroying our missile silos than we had initially predicted`. The fifth example is the ´The United States ´we``: ´Should the United States decide that it is necessary to commit its forces to combat, we must commit them in sufficient numbers` and the last one is the ´The US and Soviet Union ´we``, like in `In November President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev agreed that both governments will examine the possibility of creating risk-reduction centres to lessen the chances of miscalculation or accidental conflicts. We have also conducted a series of policy level discussions on regional issues`.

3.2.3. Culture, Topic and Individual

The manipulation of the use of ´I` and ´we` is not restricted to the Western politicians. Lwaitama analyzed the distribution of first-person singular and hearer-exclusive first-person plurals in the political speeches of two Tanzanian politicians; Mr J. K. Nyerere and Mr A. H. Mwinyi. Both have been Presidents of Tanzania. What is noticeable is that pronominal selection seems to be variable in terms of context and individual. That means that a specific context restricts the speaker to use only one, the exclusive or he inclusive form of ´we`. Some contexts only seem to be more conductive to particular pronominal choices. In his analysis Lwaitama discovered that there were huge differences in the use of first-person plural pronominal references between Nyerere and Mwinyi. In his scripted forms Nyerere used many more exclusive forms as opposed to his unscripted speeches. With Mwinyi it was the contrary. He used far more inclusive forms in his scripted as in his unscripted speeches. The gap between both was so big that Mwinyi used no exclusive forms in his scripted speeches at all, while Nyerere went to the exact opposite extreme and did not use any inclusive forms in his scripted speeches. Why these differences arose is unclear but it could be caused by the fact that Nyerere is a second-language speaker of Kiswahili and for Mwinyi it is the mother tongue. This is an example where personal or individual conditions influence the use of first-person pronominal forms. (see Wilson 1990: 53f.)

Richard Nixon provides us with another example for the variation caused by topic. Over a period of five years, from 1969 to 1974, Nixon used ´I` at a ratio of almost 3:1 with ´we `. This was predictable because the press conferences watched at, were unscripted and therefore the use of the first-person singular is more frequent. If separated according to topics, the relation between ´I` and ´we` in speeches affecting the topic of Vietnam was nearly 1:1 with 4,393 average words and the relation between ´I` and ´we` concerning the topic of Watergate is nearly 5:1 with 10,218 average words. The high use of ´I` does not necessarily indicate an acceptance of the responsibility on the part of Nixon, but the contrary. It shows the effort which seems to have been put into indicating Nixon’s own responsibility for actively seeking out the perpetrators of any wrongful acts.

The distributional possibilities of pronominal choice are essentially sociolinguistic. Pragmatics comes in when the meaning of a particular pronoun has been changed in context. (see Wilson 1990: 53)

4. The use of pronominal forms in Goebbels` speech

4.1. Analysis

The speech of Goebbels that is looked at here is the famous one he gave in the “Sportpalast” in Berlin on the 18th of February in 1943, also known under the title ´Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?`.

The first thing that strikes the eye when looking at the use of pronominal forms, here the focus is laid on the three pronominal forms ´ich` (´I`), ´wir` (´we`) and ´ihr` (´you`, plural form) and in addition out of the context on the noun ´Fuehrer`, is that there is a very specific distribution of those four words. In general it is visible that the word ´I` is certainly used throughout the whole speech, but only very seldom. This is very important because of its symbolic meaning. Goebbels, like Hitler, has a specific aim he wants to reach with his speech. He wants to achieve that after his speech every single listener will have the same opinion like he himself, that is, to be in favour for the total war. He can only reach this by convincing the mass who the ´common enemy`, like Hitler stated in his book “Mein Kampf”, is. (see Shapiro 1984: 62) Goebbels wants to convince them that the way he proposes is the right one. Therefore he takes back himself, because he wants to lay weight on the group. This was a very crucial point in Nazi-terms. The individual is nothing, the group is everything. Therefore he does not use the ´I` form when he speaks about the plans Hitler and his followers made to optimize the arms industry or when he names measures that have to be taken to recruit more men for the front line and more women for the work in factories.

Wir werden die Menschen, die dort untätig in den leeren Geschäften herumstanden, einer nutzbringenderen Tätigkeit in der öffentlichen Kriegswirtschaft zuführen. (speech of Goebbels 1943: 11)

Goebbels then uses the first-person singular pronominal to pose ten important, but also symbolic questions. This means, he only uses ´I` to create a kind of emotion. The hearer feels more involved if he realises, that it is Goebbels who demands all those things. He is very famous at that time and there he can be sure that the public will stand behind his views and will support him. The whole speech is only to legitimate the planned measures formally. They would have carried them out anyway but they used them to bind the public to them. It is striking, that Goebbels, nevertheless, uses the ´we` form more frequently than the ´I`. In numbers this would be a relation of 2,4:1. This supports the Nazi’s ideology. Only in a big group Germany can be strong and win over all his enemies. The minister for propaganda uses the plural form very frequently when he talks about the superiority of the German race over the Jews and the Bolshevists.

Wir gehören nicht zu jenen furchtsamen Gemütern, die wie das hypnotisierte Kaninchen auf die Schlange schauen, bis sie es verschlingt. Wir wollen die Gefahr rechtzeitig erkennen und ihr auch rechtzeitig mit wirksamen Mitteln entgegentreten. Wir durchschauen nicht nur die Ideologie, sondern auch die Praktiken des Bolschewismus … Wir haben in einem vierzehnjährigen Kampf vor der Machtübernahme und in einem zehnjährigen Kampf nach der Machtübernahme seine Absichten und infamen Weltbetrugsmanöver demaskiert. (speech of Goebbels 1943: 3)

He uses the ´we` in different forms for a better identification of the mass with the state as such and with the hard way the regime wants to take. He leaves the impression in every single listener that he or she belongs to a big mass that follows the right men. Goebbels uses five major types of the ´we` pronominal form to characterize different levels of involvement. At first there is the ´we` as German Nation. This is the most frequently used form of the five. An example is the quote above. Then there is the ´we` as National socialist Government or Regime, which also, like the first one, includes Goebbels. A good example for this is

Die Frage ist also nicht die, ob die Methoden, die wir anwenden, gut oder schlecht sind, sondern ob sie zum Erfolge führen. Jedenfalls sind wir als nationalsozialistische Volksführung jetzt zu allem entschlossen. Wir packen zu, ohne Rücksicht auf die Einsprüche des einen oder des anderen. Wir wollen nicht mehr im Interesse der Aufrechterhaltung eines hohen, manchmal fast friedensmäßigen inneren Lebensstandards für eine bestimmte Volksschicht das deutsche Kriegspotential schwächen und damit unsere Kriegführung gefährden. (speech of Goebbels 1943: 8)

He uses this form of ´we` if he introduces new measures of the regime or achievements the dictator and his followers achieved in the past. This serves the purpose of gaining the admiration and trust of the public. So, he also uses this form to indicate necessary steps that have to be taken to reach the total success, to indicate that every single German has to sacrifice something to safe the whole system from going down. In this use the ´we` creates a little distance between public and National socialist party and this is necessary just to bring them to mind the good achievements and through this integrate them only stronger into the community. The next ´we` is the ´we the National Socialists`, which also includes the public in contrast to the second ´we` which excluded them.

Als Nationalsozialisten haben wir die Pflicht, Alarm zu schlagen gegen die versuchte Chaotisierung des europäischen Kontinents durch das internationale Judentum, das sich im Bolschewismus eine terroristische Militärmacht aufgebaut hat, deren Bedrohlichkeit überhaupt nicht überschätzt werden kann. (speech of Goebbels 1943: 6)


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Constructing the convincing political speech
The conditions and aims of the use of the pronominal forms ´I` and ´we` in political language with special focus on the “Sportpalastrede” of Joseph Goebbels
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
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Constructing, Sociolinguistics
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Claudia Effenberger (Author), 2006, Constructing the convincing political speech, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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