What are semantics in speech?

Photo: flickr/Michelle TribeSocial scientists argue that language shapes its speakers' view of reality and determines the scope of the possible for them. If this is true, by looking at the language of the speeches from the throne one is able to gain some insights into political leaders' view of reality.

Their worldview counts indeed because they "are in positions to make decisions having major consequences."

Commentaries on the speeches from the throne normally aim to interpret key ideas that will define the government’s agenda for the months to come. They rarely pay attention to the language of these speeches. Commentators also seldom offer a retrospective and comparative take on the messages coming from the government.

Techniques of quantitative content analysis facilitate bridging these gaps, at least to some extent. Content analysis helps identify words preferred by political leaders when crafting their messages and most common constellations of these words. As a result, we are better able to assess the scope of the possible for a particular government, from both a retrospective and comparative perspective.

How does the language of the Harper government stand compared with its predecessors and foreign, namely, American, counterparts?

I analyzed the content of 15 speeches from the throne delivered during past 25 (from January 1994 through October 2013). They were compared with 21 State of the Union addresses presented by the U.S. presidents during the same period of time. (In contrast to the speech from the Throne, the State of the Union address is prepared every year).

Question of the form: Good and bad communicators

The government’s speech targets a diverse audience: ordinary people, members of the power elite and international observers. It means that its language must be understandable to everyone, including people without a college degree. As the editor of a general interest newspaper put it, "even a fifth grader should be able to read contributions published in our paper." The same applies to the government’s speech, arguably.

There are several measures for readability - Flesch score is one of them. It is calculated on the assumption that the longer words and sentences, the more difficult it is to make sense of a message.

Of the three Canadian Prime Ministers in the past 20 years, Paul Martin prepared the longest speeches (29066 characters without spaces on average), Stephen Harper - the shortest (21715 characters). The U.S. Presidents needed more words to convey their plans, on average (31148 characters without spaces).

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