A Linguistic Analysis of Obama’s Inaugural Address Essay
Rhythm and Rhetoric: A Linguistic Analysis of Obama’s Inaugural Address Liilia Batluk Supervisor: Stuart Foster School of Humanities Halmstad University Bachelor’s thesis in English Acknowledgment My appreciations to my supervisor Stuart Foster for very helpful advice during the research. Abstract In this essay I shall analyze Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, January, 2009 from the perspective of various linguistic techniques. More specifically, I shall propose and focus on the idea that the composition of the speech has an aim to create a unity of the speaker and the audience in order to deliver the message.
Moreover, the speaker maintains the atmosphere of unity throughout the speech, so that the speech produces an effect when the audience becomes a co-author of it. My thesis will also discuss some aspects of persuasive strategies employed in the speech from those dating back as long as Ancient Greece to temporal discourses. The aim is to analyze how the use of a number of linguistic approaches creates a speech which senses an agreement and co-operation between the orator and the audience. Table of Contents Acknowledgement Abstract ………………………………………………………………………………….. . Introduction ………………………………………………………………………… 1 2. Context: historical, cultural and social circumstances ……………………………………. 4 2. 1 Social and cultural background ……………………………………………….. 5 2. 2 Historical/political context . …………………………………………………… 6 3. Methodology ……………………………………………………………………… 4. Rhetorical and linguistic strategies ………………………………………………. 6 7 4. 1. The use of personal deixis ……………………………………………… 8 4. 2. Rhythm …………………………………………………………………… 10 4. 3. Parallelism and foregrounding …………………………………………. .13 4. . 1. Parallelism – syntactic and lexical…………………………………… 15 4. 3. 2. Parallelism and alliteration ………………………………………….. 16 4. 4. Rhetoric: lexical chain for the planned changes …………………………. 17 4. 5. Citing other orators …………………………………………………… 19 4. 6. Elements of preaching ………………………………………………….. .20 5. Conclusion …………………………………………………………………………….. 21 Works Cited ……………………………………………………………………………. 23 Appendix 1. Introduction This essay’s aim is to analyze Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, January, 2009 applying various linguistic approaches.
The linguistic devices used in the speech will be in focus in my research. It is a qualitative research, that is to say, the primary data is a verbal protocol, whose intertextuality – in the aspects of meaning and meaning production – will be analyzed with the help of such approaches as content analysis, critical theory and discourse analysis. I will try to unfold the sophisticated linguistic composition of various techniques lying in fields of semantics and rhetoric, employed by Obama and argue that the coherent use of them produces the desired effect in the delivery of the message.
A Presidential Inaugural Address is a ceremonial speech, made by a newly elected president of the USA, marking a new Presidential term. The Oxford Guide to the United States Government states that a speech “sets the tone for the administration” and that “presidents usually stress unity and bipartisanship after what is sometimes a divisive and bitter Presidential campaign” (“inauguration, Presidential”). There are no regulations concerning the length or issues of the speech, it is only language which is specified by the Constitution.
The richness of the English language is employed to produce the first Presidential address to the nation and the world, the speech which is in focus of the world-wide mass media. An inauguration ceremony takes place at the Capitol on January, 20 and is usually attended by a large crowd, to which President speaks to. Presidents usually have a prepared text of the speech. Obama seemed to have learned his by heart and often appealed to the audience in the form of life performance interrupted by applause, which is indicated in the transcript.
The term performance, introduced by Chomsky, will be used in this paper since it describes “the way the individual goes about using language” (Mey 5). The term reflexes the issue that I will analyze, that is to say, not only the words used by the speaker as a lexical register, but also the context in which the speech is situated. Having been skillfully coordinated, they create the 1 performance that aims the delivery of the message. I will focus on the structural and functional properties of the language, the combination of which enables the speaker to achieve the goal of the performance.
In chapter 2, I will introduce the historical and cultural context in which the speech was made. Context is defined as “circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or an idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood” (Oxford Dictionary of English, context noun). Defining the term context as dynamic, Mey states that it “is about understanding what things are for; it is also what gives our utterance their true pragmatic meaning” (41). The context is vital for analysis of any speech, particularly made in public.
I will draw attention to the historical, cultural and social circumstances during the election campaign, which preceded the Presidential address. In subchapter 2. 1, the cultural and social background of Obama will be described. During a presidential campaign, any personal details of a candidate may be significant; they indicate the electors’ preferences and, possibly, expectations. A President’s address, in turn, is based on audience’s expectations. That is why, I think, this aspect should be taken into account while analyzing the speech.
The historical/political context will be introduced in subchapter 2. 2 and will be devoted to the historical, political, economic and social aspects in American society, the complexity of which made it possible for a colored man to become President of the USA for the first time in the country’s history. This subchapter also provides information about certain features of AfroAmerican traditional sermons, which, arguably, have influenced the president’s address. Chapter 3 describes methodology of this work, that is to say, general approaches in this research. 2
Chapter 4 is devoted to the analysis of the speech from rhetorical and linguistic approaches. Since the address is a speech made in public, a rhetoric study, which is tightly linked to the use of linguistic devices, is worth doing. Subchapter 4. 1 is focused on the use of personal deixis in the speech and their role in aiming the delivery of the message. The choice of deixis, I will state, is carefully and skillfully made in order to foreground or background particular objects, so that to consider them appearing in more or less favorable aspects. In subchapter 4. , I will rearrange some extracts from the speech into stanzas – the structure of writing related to poetry – which I find to have strong links in the address. Referring to theories in linguistics dealing with parallelism, didactic poetry, rhythm and metrics I will try to prove the idea that the speaker uses rhythm as a tool for creating an emotionally agreeable atmosphere and an easily memorized message in his performance. In subchapter 4. 3, the role of parallelism and foregrounding in the complex of the linguistic devices employed in the speech will be analyzed.
They are the tools which strengthen or weaken objects in the chosen extract, depending on the goal which the speaker sets up. The subchapter is divided into two sub-subchapters, focused on syntactic and lexical forms of parallelism – 4. 3. 1 and the relationship with alliteration – 4. 3. 2. Rhetoric will be in focus in chapter 4. 4, particularly, the lexical register which reflects the intention to introduce forthcoming changes in the new administration’s policy.
The attention will be drawn to the choice of words related to the innovative projects, which appear to be as presumable as the change of generations. In his speech, Obama cites other famous orators both directly and indirectly. Chapter 4. 5 draws parallels between some points in the address and speeches of Dr Martin Luther King and Rabbi Joachim Prinz. 3 In the inaugural address, as well as in his other speeches, Obama uses elements of preaching, which have already been noticed in mass media and academic studies.
Chapter 4. 6 draws attention to the use of words from the Bible, Afro-American traditional sermon and the role of transcendental theme in political rhetoric in the USA. In chapter 5, I will connect the discussed issues on the linguistic devices employed in the speech, which aim to maximize the effectiveness of the delivery of the message. The discussion on this subject will be presented here. Chapter 6 is the conclusion, where the analyzed aspects of various linguistic discourses will be summarized.
I will conclude that their combination makes a significant contribution to the success of the speech made in public. 2. Context: the historical, cultural and social circumstances The social and historical context plays a significant role in understanding the message of the speech and analyzing it. The term context is defined as: those parts of a text preceding and following any particular passage, giving it a meaning fuller or more identifiable that if it were read in isolation. The context of any statement may be understood to comprise . . . he biographical, social, cultural, and historical circumstances in which it is made (including the intended audience or reader). (The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, context) In the following chapter I will describe the social and cultural aspects of the context preceding the performing of the Inaugural Address. 4 2. 1 Social and cultural background In November 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American president in the history of the United States. His electoral victory was considered to be a breakthrough in the social and political aspects of the American society.
He embodied the dream of millions of his fellow citizens to come true, including Martin Luther King Jr. , with whom Obama is often compared and whose principles he maintains. BBC News stated that “for many . . . Barack Obama’s presidency will be the culmination of Dr King’s dream” (1). The day before the inauguration, Obama drew attention to the resemblance when he “helped to decorate a community project in Washington in memory of Dr King” and used his idea for a deeper alikeness by saying that “we resolve that as we walk, we must walk together.
And as we go forward in the work of renewing the promise of this nation, let’s remember King’s lesson – that out separate dreams are really one”. (BBC News, 1) It is remarkable that, besides the fact that Obama is biracial, religion is said not to have played any particular role in his childhood, since his father had no particular influence on him and his mother was “an agnostic humanist”, while “the grandparents who helped to raise him were not religious” (F. I. Greenstein, 209). The President represents a large number of the Americans in the sense of his ethnic and social background.
Being dark skinned, he was brought up by his white maternal grandparents apart from a few years when he lived and attended primary school in Indonesia. Obama later wrote that, during his youth he experienced “a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 2007). Here could be mentioned the role of his wife, Michelle, a genuine representative of the African American population in the electoral campaign, but further discussion of this is beyond the remit of this essay. 5 2. 2.
Historical / political context The presidency of an African American person would probably not have been possible a few decades ago; many people claimed that they would never have dreamed that they would see a dark skinned man becoming a president of the United States. Obama realizes this, having said that he is a son of a man who “less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant” (Obama, 5). A new generation has grown up since Martin Luther King Jr. gathered millions of people for peaceful marching to Washington in order to campaign for the identical rights for all races.
The political situation is also an important aspect of Obama’s victory. The former president’s administration involved the country in a wearisome war with Iraq, an unpopular war from which the country seems unable to extricate itself. Along with a military mission in Afghanistan, it has cost an enormous amount of money to the tax payers. On top of that, the deep recession in the economy, which started at the time of the election debates and which is said to be the worst one since the Great Depression, in a general understanding, damaged the popularity of the Republicans.
A new, “fresh face” of a relatively young candidate appeared on the political stage at this moment, who “promise[d] healing” instead of fighting. Not only did he promise changes, but he also spoke a language of young people, which associates with ability, opportunity and making new crucial decisions (Capone, 2972). The candidate, Barack Obama, made a “meteoric rise to national prominence” (Greenstein, 206). 3. Methodology This essay’s research is qualitative and the speech will be analyzed by employing a number of theoretical approaches in the fields of semantics, pragmatics and rhetorical criticism.
The use of various linguistic devices employed in the speech, which contribute to the aim of any 6 speech and, particularly, a public one held by a politician, will be examined. Thus, the aim is to analyze the complexity of the devices in the context and the intertextuality, which means that “all texts are . . . composed of other (pre-existing) texts . . . held together in a state of constant interaction . . . [hence] all text exist in a state of partiality and inter-dependency with other texts” (A Dictionary of Critical Theory, “intertextuality”).
The format of C-essay does not present the opportunity to examine the whole speech from all possible approaches, hence, I will first analyze some excerpts from it in a framework of singular notions related to the theoretical basis of the above mentioned fields and then I will draw parallels between the notions. Roderick P. Hart’s conceptions on modern rhetorical criticism and Jacob L. Mey’s on pragmatics issues will be widely considered while completing the work on this paper. I will also refer to a study on Barack Obama’s South Carolina speech by A. Capone.
The prepared text of President-elect Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, as provided by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, is in the Appendix and referred to according to its numbered pages. 4. Rhetorical and Linguistic Strategies In his performance, Obama employs a complex of rhetorical and linguistic strategies, which allow the speaker to introduce and deliver the message in favorable context. Analyzing rhetoric, Hart says that “human history has been written by great persons authoring great orations for social betterment. Often, these great statements have seemed more poetic than pragmatic, as satisfying to the heart as to the head”(4).
In order to distinguish a poem from a narrative story or any other type of message, I will try to highlight rhythm by employing a number of linguistic devices including metre and parallelism. Simpson defines metre as “an organized pattern of strong and weak syllables” and 7 its “repetition into a regular phrasing across a line of verse” (15). Stanza is a product of correspondence of and “the length, metrical scheme and rhythmical pattern [of the verse lines] with those of at least one other such group of verse lines in a poem” (The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature, “stanza”).
An extensive use of pronouns ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’ in combination with a particular lexical register aims to foreground the desired effect of unity and communion the speaker and the audience. 4. 1. The use of personal deixis Deictic expressions, known as deixis, can be interpreted only in the context in which they are used. The word deictic derives from the Greek language and is used for pointing a subject. I will focus on the use of deixis employed in the speech which, I will argue, creates an effect of unity on one side and “outsiders” on the other.
In his analysis of Obama’s electoral speech, Capone indicates that “a speaker is responsible for the positions or opinions advanced, but need not necessarily be the animator or even the author” (2967). He refers to Goffman for definitions of “a principal in the legalistic sense”, which involves imposing “self-identification” as we not I. (2967). By doing so, the speaker “become[s] a representative of the people” (2967). This pattern of seemingly speaking on behalf of the audience is focused upon in the present chapter.
The use of person deixis in the speech, in these circumstances, is worth investigating. Unlike his previous public performances, where Obama aimed to convince the audience that he was the right candidate for the position of a congressman or, later, a president, here he is a victor and addressing his message from a position of Head of State. He, probably, does not need to put his personality in focus any longer, but rather needs the support for his future challenges. In this case the pronoun I, which was used generously in Obama’s previous 8 peeches, emerges only three times in his inaugural address in its beginning: “I stand here today . . . I thank President Bush . . . Today I say to you . . . “ (Obama 1). The first person pronoun “I” does not appear any more in the performance. Obama favors the third person plural pronouns we, us and our(s) in the rest of the speech the pronouns which play their significant role in creating a sense of unity of the speaker with the audience. We, us and our(s) are employed 61, 20 and 65 times respectively and are, probably, the most often used words of the speech.
The speaker does not distance himself from the American people; instead, everything the president proclaims further seems to be issued by us – the people of America. According to Capone, “a political speech is in itself an interpretation of the audience’s feelings and needs” that allow “the audience to build its own intentionality” while a politician reflexes them (2969) . The above mentioned pronouncements are employed as the inclusive ones throughout the text.
The speaker, in this case, is a member of the society to which he speaks. Whether he speaks of the previous achievements or the future plans, the orator claims them to be a commonality, which means that he shares responsibility for everything being said with the audience. As a result, the audience seems to become a co-author of the speech, providing that they approve of it, and they do so by frequent applause. Thus, the president speaks on behalf of the American people: “On this day we gather . . . we come to proclaim . . ”. The addresser has a message to his opponents, and the pronouns they, their, those and some are served as if to indicate a distance between the American people, of whose behalf Obama speaks , and those “who question the scale of our [the Americans] ambitions” (Obama 3) . The victory in the election, presumably, allows the new president to associate himself with the majority of the nation and to look down at “the cynics [who] fail to understand [is] that the ground has shifted beneath them” (Obama 3).
By carefully chosen pronouns, the speaker foregrounds the Americans, whose ideas he articulates and backgrounds the rest, who “have 9 forgotten what this country has already done” (Obama 3). Having repeated by then we and our dozens of times and created a panoramic picture of the nation’s achievements, the present state and the future challenges, Obama has little difficulty opposing and disparaging “those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame” ( Obama 2). 4. 2. Rhythm Among the complex of the devices that Obama operates in the speech, I will argue in the following sub-chapter, the rhythm plays a significant role. Rhythm contributes to delivering the message in a most effective and agreeable way. Ancient Greeks used didactic poetry, not as a literary genre but, rather, to give instructions applying to it “as being more easily remembered than prose” (The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, “didactic poetry”). Moreover, poetry brings sentimental feelings which either thrusts disturbing thoughts or stresses them, depending on the context of the text.
Words often have double meaning and can be interpreted differently. In poetry one can “play” with words employing their phonetic features, metaphors and sonic effect. In the following excerpt from the speech, the first line in the first four stanzas (the fourth one, however, has a conjunction “and”, which neither disturbs the rhythm nor change the meaning) starts with the same phrase “we will” followed by a verb phrase. The other three lines follow the main idea expressed in the first one. They are similar both rhythmically and metrically.
The last stanza is different in the structure and introverted, since “the thought veers from the main theme and then returns thereto” (Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), “Parallelism”, 2/4). Instead of starting, it finishes with the same construction “we will” followed by a verb phrase. In the speech, a vestige of a poem emerges from time to time, both in terms of rhythm and lyrical contexts of the word related to nature (as the Romantic poets would do) for describing 10 practical, moreover, technological purposes.
I will try to rearrange an extract into stanzas, where each one (except the last one) consists of four lines and is, therefore, called quatrain (The Concise Oxford, “stanza”). The last stanza brings a conclusion; and the last verse in the stanza sounds as if it were a final chord in a piece of music: We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.
We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools, and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. 11 All this we can do. And all this we will do. (Obama 2) The sun and winds are invoked to symbolise man’s need for the energy necessary to drive the economy. Obama does not speak a ‘dry’ language of economists; he prefers the language of poets. Hart compares an orator – a persuader – with a poet being “artistically creative.
Both work with symbols to breathe life into ideas” and use “their imaginations to engage their audiences imaginations” (10). The meaning of every sentence rests beyond the bare words – it is metaphorical. Analysing arguments, Hart refers to Toulmin’s work, applying to the term major claims as: a) the broadest, most encompassing, statements made by the speaker, b) lie at the level of abstraction higher than all other statements the speaker makes, c) represent what the speaker hopes will become the “residual message” in listeners minds (i. . , the main thoughts remembered when the details of the message have been forgotten), and d) are frequently repeated or restated in the message” (Hart 98). In the extract above, every sentence contains a major claim, according to its definition. The message does not consist of specific words having definitive meaning of the work planned; they are, rather, “the broadest, most encompassing”. What seems to strengthen the message is its rhythmical construction and repetition.
Unlike the ‘prosaic’ parts of the speech, where the listener does not need to employ their imagination, the poetical ones require it in order to fill the gap in the meanings between “the sun and the winds”, which should “fuel our cars”, or work out the way “to wield technology’s wonders” (Obama 2). The structures of these stanzas follow the rules of synthetic parallelism, where “the theme is worked up by the building of thought upon similar thought” (Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), “Parallelism”, 2/4).
These linguistic tools contribute to the speaker’s foregrounding of the idea of forthcoming changes by repeating the same or similar syntactic structures along with the 12 same phrase “we will”. Lexically, the stanzas also correspond. The theme of building and reconstruction the country’s economy progresses throughout the block with a final ‘chord’ where Obama seems to have changed his pre-presidential slogan “yes, we can” to “yes, we will”. 4. 3.
Parallelism and foregrounding Parallelism is a product of “balanced arrangement achieved through repetition of the same syntactic form” (The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, “parallelism”). Analyzing the text, one can find both syntactic and lexical parallels. Lexical parallelism is an effect of repetition of the same words or certain relationships between words, mostly belonging to the same word group, such as verbs or nouns. Giving examples of parallelism, scholars often refer to poetry and rhetoric.
It seems that what they have in common is their appeal to the listener’s emotions rather than pragmatism. Foregrounding is based on “giving unusual prominence to one element or property of the text” (The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, “foregrounding”). The devices such as repetition and giving a favorable syntactic position are commonly employed for creating a foreground effect. The background is, hence, a weaker and significantly less important component in the text is used as a tool for stressing foregrounding.
I would like to suggest that the following piece of speech consists of lexical parallels. To start with, the nouns ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ are antonyms; by putting them in the same line the speaker creates the effect of parallelism based on contradiction. He continuously contrasts and contradicts the rights and wrongs in the text until ‘goodness’ eventually prevails over ‘evil’. For we know that our patchwork heritage is strength, not a weakness. 13 We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.
We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from the dark chapter stronger and united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. (Obama 4) It is interesting that by contradicting and drawing parallels, the speaker achieves the effect of foregrounding.
Before pointing out the goal, the speaker explains the reason for it and, hence, prepares the ground for the challenge, which seems achievable afterwards. Lexical and syntactic repetitions strengthen both the background and foreground of the text. Speaking about the diversity of the country, Obama uses the effect of antithesis making contrasts when mentioning the religious groups. The diversity of religions evolves from being simply contrastive, which might in other contexts be interpreted as divisive and, therefore, a problematic issue, to cohesion and solidarity of the purpose.
Those elements, which rest on the side of ‘meanness’, fade away under the pressure of ‘goodness’. The following compounds of phrases seem predictable then: “hatreds – pass . . . tribe – dissolve . . . humanity – reveal” (Obama 4). 14 4. 3. 1Parallelism – syntactic and lexical The following extract is an example of both syntactic and lexical parallelism. The sentences begin with and are stressed by a prepositional phrase “for us”. It is followed by the noun phrase consisting of the pronoun “they”, which is followed by two verb phrases joined by a conjunction “and”.
The sentences are not alike in the structures. That is to say, although their first verb phrase is intransitive, in the first two sentences, it is post-modified by a noun phrase and a prepositional phrase respectively. In the third sentence, the same prepositional phrase post-modifies the two intransitive verb phrases “fought” and “died”. These verbs have related meaning where fighting causes dying. In the second sentence, the phrases “toiled in sweatshops” and “plowed the hard earth” are quasi-synonymous as they both mean doing hard work.
In addition to the parallelism, the repetition and the heading position of the phrase ‘for us’ produces the effect of foregrounding. The repetition and relationship of the phrases “they” and “for us” make the message of the passage more coherent. Everything “they” did, they did “for us”. In this case, what “forebearers” [sic] did, is not signified merely as a list of jobs, but rather as the effort they made for “a future generation”. The language devices serve as a promoter of the message here. For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life.
For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; 15 endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth. For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh. (Obama 2) 4. 3. 2. Parallelism and alliteration The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines the term alliteration as “the repetition of the same sounds – usually initial consonants of words or of stressed syllables – in any sequence of neighboring words”, remarking that in some poetry “alliteration rather than rhythm is the chief principle of repetition” (“alliteration”).
The following block of supposed poetry contains both of the devices alliteration and parallelism. The adjectives “less” and “last” are not only repeated in the same stanza, but they also start with the same consonant “l”, consist of a single syllable and have similarity in the meaning. They both related to the tendency to minimize something to an unimportant level. Although the two first stanzas begin with the same pronoun “our”, they differ in the choice of linguistic tools. The effect of parallelism of the following two stanzas rests upon contradiction.
Alliteration is more vaguely expressed in the words starting with consonant “p” such as “pat”, “protecting”, “putting” and “passed” in the second stanza, and is absent in the third one. These two stanzas contain verbs and/or verb phrases having opposite meaning; they contradict each other and the parallelism is based on contradiction. Every stanza consists of a single, complex sentence, where intensity is accumulating in the first two lines in stanza 1 and 2 (in the third stanza that is line 1), and accelerating to its climax in the following line 3 and 4 relatively.
Calling for action, Obama stresses the last syllables in 16 phrasal verbs – verbs of action pick up and dust off. The choice of these multi-word verb