A linguistic analysis of the first official speeches in office of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2020

19 Seiten, Note: 2,0

Robert Cramer (Autor:in)


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Material and Method
2.1 Material
2.2 Method

3. Linguistic features used by both speakers
3.1 Formal acts and their meaning
3.2 Metaphors
3.3 Appealing to feelings
3.4 The rule of three
3.5 Hyperboles
3.6 Modality
3.7 Personal pronouns
3.8 Populism

4. Conclusion

5. Works cited

1. Introduction

Language is the lifeblood of politics: it is debatable whether language would have developed in the first place without politics and certain that politics would never have developed without language (Charteris-Black 2011: 4).

Politicians need to convince people to elect them, if they want to be successful. Nowadays there are various channels through which to reach potential followers, all of which have one thing in common: they use language to communicate. The possibilities vary from written texts published through different online media channels to podcasts and official speeches made in public and with press attendance. One presentation of a speech that is always highly attended is usually the first one given after a head of state is elected. Prior to this, during an election campaign, politicians need to convince a certain number of people in order to win the election. After the politician is elected, everybody, even those who voted for someone else, listen to the new leader of a country to figure out what this election could bring about.

The first speeches in office of the UK´s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (2019) and US President Donald Trump (2017) are interesting to analyse because both of them polarise and divide their countries. Both of them use similar strategies with regards to content, but different language. In these speeches they both state main points of their political intentions, their plans for the future, and their goal to make their country a better place for everyone.

This paper tries to answer the following questions:

1) What rhetorical devices did Boris Johnson and Donald Trump use in their first official speeches to convince the people of their countries to follow them?
2) How do they differ and where do the speakers use the same linguistic tools?

Chapter 2 provides a short overview of the analysed material – the two speeches and the analysed linguistic features of the speeches. Chapter 3 is divided into eight sections that are partially linked to each other. For the chosen linguistic devices, examples and explanations of why they are used in each context are provided. The conclusion summarises the results and answers the second research question.

Both speeches are analysed on the basis of transcribed documents (Johnson: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-49102495, Boris Johnson: First speech as PM in full; Trump: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/the-inaugural-address/, The Inaugural Address) which were checked by the author to make sure they were correct and matched the spoken versions. In this paper, all quotes taken from the two speeches refer to these two sources.

2. Material and Method

2.1 Material

The analysed speeches were presented in different situations and settings. Boris Johnson held his first official speech in office on 24th July 2019 in front of the media and live on TV, as is usual in the UK. He was not speaking to any other people in front of Downing Street 10. He was on his own and no one from his cabinet was with him, no family members or former prime ministers. Johnson’s main focus of his election campaign and of this speech was Brexit.

The inauguration of an American President is a big event in Washington and the President is joined by his family, by former presidents, by other members of the government and American VIPs. In addition, the general public is invited to come to Washington to support the new president. Trump claims he addressed ‘tens of millions’ of Americans on 20th January 2017 in his speech, whereas media reports counted between 150,000 and 180,000 spectators. Trump’s election campaign had the slogan ‘Make America great again’ and this is what his speech deals with.

The transcribed version of Johnson’s speech contains 1668 words, while Trump’s speech counts 1434 words.

2.2 Method

The first official speeches of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump after being elected are analysed in terms of eight different types of linguistic and stylistic features. Many more features could have been examined in these speeches, but that would have gone beyond the scope of this paper . The paper’s focus lies on modality and the usage of modal verbs, as described by Machin and Mayr (2012) and Fairclough (2001). Besides this, the rhetorical devices used (cf. Henriksen 2011 and Charteris-Black 2011) were taken apart (cf. Fairclough 2001) and examined. The different linguistic features are described in general and are analysed in the two speeches in the following sections. Another important aspect was to figure out the usage of pronouns to analyse how the audience is addressed and how the speaker positions himself, his government and the people. The last feature that was analysed was the populistic style of the speeches. The search function in Microsoft Word was used to count uses of certain words in the speeches as well as to count the total number of words.

3. Linguistic features used by both speakers

3.1 Formal acts and their meaning

Every speech has certain formal aspects, such as a greeting or an expression of gratitude to special listeners or to the people who are standing close to the speaker. Very often there are also people who `have to´ be addressed or thanked who are rivals or disliked predecessors of the speaker. In this case the speaker has to be sensitive in order to find the right words.

Boris Johnson begins his speech with a formal announcement. The fact that he expresses that the Queen ‘invited’ him to form a government and that he ‘accepted’ makes it sound as if it was her personal wish to have him in this position. But the Prime Minister is elected by the British people and the Queen is a neutral monarch. Announcing the invitation by the Queen to rule the UK is probably a way to show his critics that even this neutral authority supports for him, but in fact it is just a formal act. He uses this way of expressing the situation again when he states that ‘the Queen just honoured’ him with his new job. Again, it is simply a formal act where the Queen deputises the Prime Minister who was elected by the people of the UK.

Johnson does not mention the name of his predecessor, Theresa May, when he thanks her for the work she did before. This shows that there might have been differences between the two rivals. The next sentence, beginning with ‘but’, modifies his gratitude and shows what Johnson really thinks about May, when he states that England went through ‘three years of indecision’. She was Prime Minister for those three years he mentions and although Johnson does not describe her leadership word by word, here and in the rest of the speech it becomes clear that he intends to act differently to his predecessor. The fact that he begins the sentence with the connection word ‘but’ shows that despite his formal gratitude to May he wants to express that, in his eyes, she did not do a good job. Conjunctions like ‘and’ and ‘but’ hold a speech together and connect different statements (cf. Young & Fitzgerald 2006: 15). In this case there is a formal statement that thanks Johnson’s predecessor and offers Johnson’s personal opinion of her legacy.

Donald Trump announces former presidents and the Chief of Justice at the beginning of his speech by thanking them. The fact that he lists them by name and closes that list with ‘fellow Americans and people of the world’ shows that their only difference to the rest of the world is that he mentioned them by their names. In general, they belong to that list of ‘people of the world’. In the following, Trump thanks his predecessor Obama and his wife for helping him during the time of transfer and even calls them ‘magnificent’. He modifies this gratitude in the next sentence by using the word ‘however’ and goes on to declare that Obama kept the power in Washington and that he wants to give it back to ‘you, the American people’. He continues by talking about the exploitation by the Obama government of the American people, but only mentions ‘a small group in our nation’s capital’, ‘Washington’, ‘politicians’ and ‘the establishment’ and never names Barack Obama or any other politician from the former government. This linguistic strategy is called indetermination. The purpose of saying ‘ Some did this and that’ is not to focus on the person or group of persons but on the message itself (cf. Khajavi & Rasti 2020: 6). It is difficult for ordinary American citizens to trace which politician caused which decision and this is why Trump generalises the drawbacks he wants to talk about, emphasising that from now on everything will change.

Both Johnson and Trump keep to the formalities of such an important speech. And neither conceals during the rest of their speech that they dislike the work of the people they thanked at the beginning and want to act completely differently.

3.2 Metaphors

The usage of metaphors is a phenomenon in everyday life as well as in political speeches. They are used to help understand ideas or visions by using familiar language (cf. Henriksen 2011: 50).

Boris Johnson’s use of the expression ‘becoming a prisoner of old arguments’, for example, is a metaphor for the fact that there are people (‘pessimists’) who had argued against Brexit for the last three years and that they had not changed their opinion during this time. From Johnson’s perspective, they have a negative view on the development of the Brexit strategy, no new arguments against it and are stuck in this view. In this case the word prisoner visualises someone behind locked doors and iron bars that cannot be opened by the one behind them.

He anonymises individuals and groups of people by saying ‘there are pessimists at home and abroad’ and uses indetermination like Trump did when he talked about his predecessor.

Another metaphoric expression is to ‘lose their shirts’, used by Johnson in connection with the people who ‘bet against Britain’. Here, Johnson wants to state that people who do not believe in Brexit will be proven wrong and repeats again, in different words, that his plans for Brexit will succeed. He uses colloquial language to show the audience that he is one of them and not an established politician who only uses elitist language.

One more interesting example of a picture Johnson draws in his speech is about the backstop which was one of the sticking points during the negotiations of the Brexit contract. It means that Johnson wants to end the discussion about a hard border with controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is a play on words to state that ‘the buck stops here’, which means that the discussion is now over. As he does not mention this issue again in this speech he uses this statement as a sound bite, i.e. a short and quotable phrase. Sound bites can be used in headlines or on various media such as Twitter. It is a large idea pressed into a small amount of words. Sound bites communicate that no questioning of the speaker is allowed and are often indicated by the use of the imperative verb form (cf. Charteris-Black 2011: 9).

In his speech, Trump sometimes uses metaphors in a larger context and paints a picture over a couple of sentences with a dramatic conclusion. One good example is the picture of ‘reaping’, ‘flourishing’ and ‘prospering’ when he talks about the former government and how they, in his eyes, misused their power. He tries to frame the Obama government in a position in which they earned money, lived a good life and ‘the people’ had to pay for it. These formulations are very vague and he gives no substantial content or even concrete numbers or sources to support them. They are supposed to foster a dismissive attitude towards Obama, which is a typically populist approach (cf. point 3.8).

When he speaks about ‘factories scattered like tombstones’ and the gangs that have ‘stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential’ he calls this scenario an ‘American carnage’ and states that he will end this right now. Again no details are mentioned. All of this makes the audience feel that there is something wrong, that there is an enemy who has to be fought and that as Trump is the one who names these things he is the right person to fight this enemy. Dramatising facts by using exaggeration is a discursive strategy and notable among populist politicians. The stylistic choices of hyperbole and painting apocalyptic pictures will be analysed in sections 3.5 and 3.8 in detail.

Another example is the usage of language of war. Trump uses verbs like ‘fight’ and other metaphors of war in his speech. When he talks about the ‘old wisdom our soldiers will never forget’, no matter what skin colour you have, everyone bleeds the ‘red blood of the patriots’ he continues by talking about ‘glorious freedoms’ and ‘saluting the same great American flag’. These expressions try to build a picture of a nation that needs to stand together to fight the rest of the world. Trump begins his description of this scenario with the statement that ‘a new national pride will stir our souls’. All this is exaggerated and is intended to create a feeling of patriotism. He includes all Americans in this feeling but although he mentions different skin colours, he excludes immigrants by stressing several times that he is talking about Americans and ‘American hands’ and that two rules exist: ‘Buy American and hire American.’

3.3 Appealing to feelings

Talking like or pretending to be ‘one of us’ creates a feeling of common purpose in the audience when an influential politician speaks to them. This strategy is used by both speakers when announcing their personal efforts on behalf of the people.

The expression ‘I am standing before you today’ used by Boris Johnson makes this part of his speech very personal. He obligates himself personally to stand for his promises and to prove the critics wrong. He uses this later on, even more forcefully, when he states that ‘I will take personal responsibility for the change I want to see’. This personal impact makes the audience feel closer to the speaker because it feels as if it is not just the Prime Minister in office promising something, but Boris Johnson himself as a private person. An unanswered question concerning this exaggeration remains: What will the consequences be if Johnson fails?

One of the greatest goods in the Western world is democracy and the freedom to make political choices without being spied on. Johnson uses the verb ‘ honouring a democratic mandate’ concerning the Brexit decision, which is intended to make the audience feel that this great good has not yet been accomplished in this case because Brexit has still not happened by the time this speech is being held. Honouring something always has to do with feelings and Johnson tries to appeal to the feelings of his listeners and especially those of the people who voted for Brexit. He wants to make clear that he is the one who will force the change and who will satisfy their wish.

Donald Trump acts in a similar way to Boris Johnson when he claims, ‘I will fight for you with every breath in my body – and I will never, ever let you down.’ Here we find warlike language again in the will to fight for Americans. He uses this elevated analogy to convince the audience of his effort during the presidency. Again one could ask the question, what happens if someone feels that Trump has not fought for him? Usually such expressions do not have any consequences other than creating feelings, with the aim of aligning with the audience.

Trump requests an openness to patriotism and mentions three qualities (‘openly, honestly, solidarity’). Those are key terms for a peaceful society and make the audience feel that everybody is welcome to be part of this society. The next sentence excludes people from other countries again. Trump states that a united ‘America is totally unstoppable.’ Unstoppable gives a completely different impression in comparison to the three qualities mentioned before and goes back to war and competitive language. This dual style is a way of reaching a wide range of people because some prefer softer language and others prefer more competitive and aggressive expressions.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 19 Seiten


A linguistic analysis of the first official speeches in office of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump
Universität Bielefeld  (LiLi Fakultät)
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Johnson, Trump, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Twitter, Linguistic, Linguistics, Speech, Analysis, English, language, school, USA, Linguistic analysis, speech analysis
Arbeit zitieren
Robert Cramer (Autor:in), 2020, A linguistic analysis of the first official speeches in office of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/916683


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