Deicitc use in political speeches. The effects of pronouns in Barack Obama's 2004 "Key Note Address"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

25 Pages, Grade: 1,3

N. Felicissimus (Author)


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Pronouns in Political Speeches
2.1 Political Discourse
2.2. The characteristics of deictic use
2.3 The function of deixis in Obama’s speech
2.3.1 Summary of the speech
2.3.2 A sense of belonging
2.3.3 Construction of the Other

3 Conclusion

4 Works Cited

5 Appendix

1 Introduction

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” (Orwell 9).

Orwell has a very critical view on the potential dangers of language that can lead to persuasion and deception. Political speeches in particular can be examined under certain pragmatic aspects in order to find out the speaker’s intention.

With this in mind, the effect of pronouns in political speeches will be considered in the pages that follow. At first sight, the use of pronouns does not seem to suit to Orwell’s radical and immoral understanding of political language. This paper will illustrate that the choice of single linguistic units as pronouns can have a great effect on the listeners and recipients. How can atmosphere be created, political groups compared and distinguished and how can ideas and ideologies be conveyed and intensified by the judicious use of pronouns?

There is a number of linguists who have already dealt with the topic of pronouns in political discourse. Among the first were Brown and Gilman with their famous article “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity” (1960).

A newer approach was taken by John Wilson thirty years later when he linked pronouns to political language (Wilson 1990). Pennycook points out the difficulties and meaning of pronouns in a paper called “The Politics of Pronouns” (1994) which will be one of the basic resources of my investigations.

In this paper, the use of pronouns will be examined within the scope of Barack Obama’s keynote address in 2004 since this speech made him famous far beyond Illinois, where he was senator during that time.1 His famous slogan “Yes we can” which he developed after that speech reflects the galvanizing power of the single pronoun We over a whole nation.

2. Pronouns in Political Speeches

2.1 Political Discourse

Since the issue of this paper deals with political speeches, it makes sense to outline the general topic of political discourse. According to (Paltridge) discourse analysis is a field of linguistics that tries to interpret what people mean beyond the surface of their utterances as well as the social and cultural relationship between the single participants of the discussion.

In terms of political discourse analysis (PDA) a clear definition is difficult as van Dijk points out. In his opinion, elected politicians are the central figures. Van Dijk defines discourse as a system of senders and recipients and therefore other groups of people like citizens or the press are part of the field of PDA as well (Van Dijk, Teun A 13).

Another concept widens the field of possible political topics to elements of “power, conflict, control, or domination” and hence almost all discourse would be political (Wilson 389). But since this would be a relatively vague definition, new approaches delimit PDA by treating utterances only as political if the speaker consciously acts as a political person, such as a member of a party, and in a political context, that is, for example governing or election campaigns (Van Dijk, Teun A 20f); Wilson 2008: 389).

In considering possible inaccuracies regarding PDA, Wilson refers to the linguist Michal L. Geis who criticizes that the author’s own political attitudes and bias resurface in many such analyses. Nevertheless, Wilson qualifies this approach as acceptable if the author reveals his interpretations as such (Wilson 2008: 399).

A special form of political discourse are speeches which in first line serve “to persuade listeners of the speaker’s viewpoint” (Zupnik 1994: 340). One way a speaker can achieve this goal is expressing solidarity. Anita Fetzer and Peter Bull note that this process in political speeches is often multi-layered, beginning on the level of party members and continuing to a solidarity with the whole nation (Fetzer and Bull 133).

Though PDA deals with many more aspects like sociology, philosophy and other fields of linguistics, the capacity of this seminar paper can just cover a single facet of pragmatics, that is, the use of deixis in form of referential pronouns.

2.2. The characteristics of deictic use

As mentioned in the previous chapter, discourse means the interpretation of utterances produced by speakers in relation to their recipients or interpreters. This relationship is called deixis which is Greek for pointing to or picking out (Grundy 23). Having a closer look at this relationship, several categories which specify the position of the hearer/reader to the speaker/writer can be defined (Chilton and Schäffner 30).

First of all, it is helpful to define some important terms which will be recurrently used in this paper. Pronouns are a closed set of words which can substitute for a noun or a noun phrase. This replacement is called pronominalisation. This closed set of these pronouns means, that there is only a definite repertoire of pronoun forms though this extent varies substantially in different languages. Moreover, pronouns can be further divided into subclasses such as demonstrative, indefinite, possessive or personal pronouns. This paper will especially deal with the latter type (Mühlhäusler and Harré 9).

Another key term is indexicality which says that “the full significance of [deictic] expressions cannot be grasped unless the hearer was present at the actual occasion of its use” (Mühlhäusler and Harré 10). This leads to the question what deixis actually is. Deixis is always produced by so-called indexical words or phrases, the deictics or demonstratives. Chilton describes five types of indexicals. The first one refers to a person (e.g. pronouns like I, You, They). Certain deictics such as forms of address point out the social relationship, hence social deixis, whereas spatial and temporal deixis give reference to the place or the time of uttering. Another type, the discourse deixis, means references in the text itself, that is, either anaphoric, if a deictic relates to something previously mentioned or cataphoric, if it refers to something mentioned later in the text (Chilton and Schäffner 30f); (Grundy 23-28); (Mühlhäusler and Harré 9).

Another important aspect is the deictic centre, the perspective from which an indexical is used. “The default deictic centre” according to Grundy “is the speaker’s location at the time of utterance” (33). Hanks names this in a more ostensive way “egocentricity” (Hanks 11). In this context, deictics can help the hearer to identify the referent of indexicals and to get a more coherent impression of the speech (HURFORD, Heasley, and Smith 67). However, the deictic centre can shift if the speaker changes the perspective towards the recipient. A city guide would probably say “on your left you see the London Eye” though he is standing in front of the group having the sightseeing on his right.

As a consequence the relationship between the deictic centre and the person addressed is always one-dimensional and reversible. This can be illustrated by the following graphical representation:

(qtd. in Volmert and Mischnick 111).

Each of the different forms of WIR respectively IHR/SIE includes more or less people who belong to that group, a hierarchy that can be extended to include either two people or the entire mankind (Volmert and Mischnick 110f). Of course there is a plethora of different aspects of indexicals, e.g. whether they are proximal or distal, that is whether they describe a referent near or far from the speaker. The distinction between inclusiveness vs. exclusiveness of the hearer towards the speaker is yet another important dimension of deixis (cf. Mühlhäusler and Harré 9f). Both terms can be transferred to the pronoun We. According to Mühlhäusler an inclusive we contains the speaker, as shown in the above graphic, this means that both Ich and Du are included in we, whereas an exclusive we does not contain the speaker:

Let’s go to the dance tonight, shall we? (Inclusive) A doctor to a patient: How are we feeling today then? (Exclusive) (Mühlhäusler and Harré 169).

In this regard, exclusive we develops intimacy with the hearer because the doctor avoids superiority by using we instead of you. He suggests to be equal to his patient and tries to gain his trust. On the contrary, exclusive we also serves to distance the speaker from his utterance which is a popular way in political discourse as Wilson points out. If a government leader has to explain increasing interest rates he basically has two options:

Due to the rising balance of payment deficit…

1) I have found it necessary to increase interest rates
2) We have found it necessary to increase interest rates (Wilson, Politically speaking 1990: 48).

According to Wilson the aim of a politician is to make his electorate “believe that the decisions that are being made are the right ones” (Wilson, Politically speaking 1990: 50). Option 2) suggests that the decision is not made by one single person and therefore he reduces the risk of being accused as being solely responsible for a possible mistake. (Wilson, Politically speaking 1990: 49f). With respect to political speeches especially, the use of pronouns can create a certain atmosphere depending on the speaker’s intention which will be analysed within this paper.

2.3 The function of deixis in Obama’s speech

2.3.1 Summary of the speech

On July 27th 2004 Barack Obama held a speech in front of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in order to promote John Kerry during the presidential elections. In the end, he lost to incumbent president George W. Bush, but is now Secretary of State.

Barack Obama’s keynote address at the DNC made him known beyond the State of Illinois where he was candidate for the senate. According to his former fellow senator Dick Durbin, who he thanks in his speech as well, Obama’s “public image changed because of that speech” (Bernstein) and was the cornerstone for his successful presidential campaign four years later.

At the beginning of his speech Obama expresses his gratitude to have the chance to hold such a speech as the son of an African immigrant “that in no other country on Earth [would] even [be] possible (Appendix: 30).

Elahi connects this to Obama’s version of the American Dream which let him appear as a real American who understands the values and attitudes of his country (Elahi 462).

In the following lines, he approaches the values of the constitution as well as some points of criticism including economic, educational and military needs for improvement After his promotion of John Kerry, Obama utters his famous words: “there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.” (Appendix: 98).

With this forceful statement, Obama raises an awareness for unity among all Americans, inter alia because he uses the same spatial indexical “there” for the two ideologically separated versions of America and for the United States as well.

In the following chapter, personal deictics will become more important because their use can create an even stronger atmosphere of unity and separation from other groups.

2.3.2 A sense of belonging

Table 1: The frequency of specific pronouns

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

In Table 1, you can examine the number of several pronouns used by Obama. At a total of 78 times, the personal pronoun We and its variants Our and Us appear most frequently in his speech, but why?

According to Pennycook there “is never an unproblematic ‘we’” (Pennycook 174), because there can be different kinds of it which in turn have different functions. For example, Obama refers to the present members of the Democratic Party:

Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy (Appendix: 31).

Whereas in “We have real enemies in the world” (Appendix: 82) Obama clearly speaks of the whole nation and all Americans. That means, Obama changed the deictic centre of We.

The “general flexibility and multifunctionality of English we” (Mühlhäusler and Harré 177) can be subdivided into two general functions, the first one is called directive. In this case the


1 All quotes are taken from the online transcript of the speech available at FDCH E-Media (see Works Cited).

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Deicitc use in political speeches. The effects of pronouns in Barack Obama's 2004 "Key Note Address"
University of Würzburg
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Linguistics, Obama, Pronouns, deixis, deictic, we, they, you, politics, political language, rhetoric, key note address
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N. Felicissimus (Author), 2014, Deicitc use in political speeches. The effects of pronouns in Barack Obama's 2004 "Key Note Address", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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