Election language

After Nick Clegg’s surprise victory in the UK’s first televised leaders election debate, it’s been interesting reading some analysis of the language used not only in the live debate but also by all three main parties in their election manifestos which were published last week.

Of course all three party leaders had been rehearsed to within an inch of their lives for the debate but the words they use as individuals can still tell us something more than the soundbites they have committed to memory.

In his blog Wordwatchers American psychologist and linguist James W Pennebaker has analysed the words used by Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg during the debate on 15 April to “get a sense of their personality, social, and thinking styles.” Pennebaker and his team at The University of Texas have run similar tests on words used by candidates in the American presidential debates in 2004 and 2008.

Interestingly, their approach to this word-crunching task is to focus on what they call ‘junk’ words that we all use in everyday speech – pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs. Whereas content words (nouns and verbs) tell us what someone is talking about, says Pennebaker, junk words can provide an insight into people’s personality, emotional state, and social styles.

While he describes the first debate as “incredibly tame”, with all three men taking in a similar way, Pennebaker found “striking differences” between Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg with David Cameron somewhere in between.

Gordon Brown used “emotionally and psychologically distant” language and instead of using ‘I’ tended to use ‘we’ as well as using more negative emotion words. Apparently using ‘we’ is a sign of distancing seen in “less adept” politicians, such as John Kerry and Al Gore.

Nick Clegg, by contrast, used ‘I’ more often, used far more positive words and used the present tense, indicating he was more honest and engaged in “the here-and-now”.  

Like Brown, David Cameron also used a lot of negative emotion words but was more angry, whereas Brown came across as anxious.  His use of words like would, should, and could made him appear moralistic and had “a greater focus on money-related issues.”

The analysis also shed light on the thinking styles of each leader, with Gordon Brown’s language seeming the most complex and interesting.  In contrast, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg used more “cognitive or thinking words – words such as think, realize, understand, because.”  Pennebaker says these words are used by people “still trying to construct a story. In other words, Cameron and Clegg are still trying to come up with ways to frame their thinking compared to Brown who already has a story in his head.”

Pennebaker warns us not to take the results of this analysis too seriously but suggests that as they get used to the settings of the debates, each candidate will start to reveal their natural ways of speaking.” Now that will be interesting.

Meanwhile, on last Saturday’s ‘Heckler’ programme on Radio 4, Clive Anderson challenged a forensic linguist, Dr Tim Grant, to assess each of the main parties’ manifestos.

His computer analysis revealed the Tories’ manifesto contained more negative emotional words and Labour’s more positive words. Unlike both the Tories and Labour, the Liberal Democrats apparently don’t use the word ‘will’. Instead they use lots of ‘cognitive’ words – they ‘believe’ in things.

Unsurprisingly, Dr Grant concluded that the manifestos were not written for the general public. Instead, they’re written for other politicians and journalists, with lots of jargon and ‘embedded language’ that only those in the know can interpret.

Sounds like a great insomnia cure to me.

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