The torrent of news stories, analyses, editorials, columns and blog posts about President Obama’s speech on his budget plan focused, appropriately, on the numbers.
But there’s another way to look at it: analyzing the speaker’s words in ways that reveal as much about the content as the dollar signs that pepper its paragraphs. This approach employs a tool that linguists rely on in their study of human language. It’s a concordance, an alphabetical list of the principal words in a text that can be sorted by the number of times they are used.
Before computers, generating these rhetorical inventories was such an arduous, time-consuming project that they were limited to literature’s big guns: The Works of Shakespeare, the Bible, Koran and the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.
Now digitized texts and software make a concordance just a few keystrokes away.
One of the simplest concordances are those that crunch word frequencies to view patterns, like the one that the British newspaper The Guardian produced in 2010, comparing Obama’s first State of the Union speech with those delivered by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush “to see where president’s focus lay.” There are also other ways language lovers can aim a spotlight on a politician’s rhetorical skill or lack thereof.
Word frequencies (selected ever-so-carefully by speechwriters, spin doctors and political consultants) offer another prism to examine the messages behind Obama’s attempt to seize control of an issue as vital — and polarizing — as reducing the federal deficit and the path the President wants to take to achieve that goal.
Here are three examples.
|Spread the Wealth: Income and class|
|Words||Frequency of use in speech
|Wealthiest Americans/Wealthiest 2 per cent of Americans/ Wealthier/Wealthy/Most fortunate||9|
|Poor children/Poor families/Less fortunate||5|
|Working families/Working Americans||3|
|The Vision Thing|
|Talking Points: The Focus of the Speech|
As in any speech, what isn’t mentioned is often as revealing as what is. Here are words that President Obama did not use in his speech:
This concordance was created using DEVONthink software.