Politicians and Their Words: Some Thoughts about Semantic Prosody

by Craig Evans

The battle-lines of political discourse in the context of election campaigns are often drawn at the level of individual words. Take, for example, the following words: ‘immigrants’, ‘benefits’, ‘bankers’, ‘Islamic’, ‘Brussels’, ‘politicians’. While defined in neutral terms by dictionaries, these words tend to acquire a derogatory sense when used in the media or by politicians themselves: ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘benefits cheats’, ‘bankers’ bonuses’, ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, ‘Brussels’ bureaucracy’, ‘distrust of politicians’.

The collocates that frequently occur with these words, as illustrated here, influence their semantic prosody; that is, the degree to which they have negative or positive associations. In the discourse of British political debate, the semantic prosody of these particular words tends to be negative. Alternatively, words like ‘troops’, ‘nurses’, ‘countryside’, ‘schools’, ‘British values’, ‘communities’, etc tend to have positive associations. This is because of the frequency with which they collocate with the possessive determiner ‘our’, where the sense of them belonging to us implies a positive emotional connection.

The effects of semantic prosody arguably have an influence on the words politicians choose to use. For example, for those opposed to the free movement of people across borders, the word ‘immigrants’ on its own is enough to arouse negative associations. This can be attributed to the frequency with which it is used in conjunction with a word like ‘illegal’. For this reason, supporters of the free movement of people may choose to avoid the word, perhaps opting instead to talk in terms of ‘migration’ as a process.

Similarly, the negative connotations of ‘benefits’ are attributable to collocates like ‘cheats’, ‘scroungers’, ‘scandal’, etc. These are especially prevalent in the print media. A more positive alternative in British political discourse might be ‘welfare’, whose collocate ‘state’ encourages an association with a set of ideal principles (i.e. the concept of the ‘welfare state’) rather than a system being abused. The same association might not be made in North America, where the word ‘welfare’ is primarily used to refer to unemployment support, and therefore may have the same negative associations as ‘benefits’ does in Britain.

For many key words used in politics, the division between positive and negative semantic prosody is not so clear cut: for example, take the lexical item ‘NHS’. As with the other words mentioned, ‘NHS’ is often prefixed with the possessive determiner ‘our’. Pragmatically this conveys a notion of pride by signalling social solidarity; semantically it references the fact that the NHS is a public service for everyone to use. But then who is ‘everyone’ and what is meant by ‘our’?

In the case of the NHS, whose ever-stretching resources lend weight to calls for partial privatisation, this may vary depending on who is talking. For a right-leaning speaker, ‘our’ might mean British citizens only; for a pro-European, ‘our’ could mean anyone with the right to live in Britain; and for others, ‘our’ might also include all fellow humans in situations of humanitarian crises throughout the world.

The ambiguity of the collocate perhaps reflects a complex and varied relationship that the British public have with the NHS. Many people with ongoing health issues will rely on the NHS as part of a necessary way of life, but that doesn’t mean to say that they are oblivious to the impact of an ageing population on its strained resources. For some the NHS is a symbol of national pride, while for others, like the UKIP party secretary Matthew Richardson, it is ‘the Reichstag bunker of socialism’.

The apparent neutrality in terms of semantic prosody of the lexeme ‘NHS’ may contribute to some politicians’ feeling that they need to be more creative when referring to it. In addition to the UKIP description, other more common metaphors include ‘jewel in the crown of public service provision’ and ‘ticking time-bomb’ to express opposing positive and negative views of the NHS.

Of course, most of what I have described above is based on personal experience and intuition. To properly test how patterns of semantic prosody are shaped in political discourse, it would be necessary to carry out a corpus linguistics study of collocation. One interesting study might involve creating a corpus of political speeches and debate transcripts from recent years. This could consist of several data sets to correspond with different political parties. Using concordancing software such as Wordsmith or AntConc, the researcher could then analyse the collocation of ‘our’ and ‘NHS’ to see how much it occurs in the different data sets, and also to investigate whether its use has diminished in recent times. If this proved to be the case, it would arguably indicate a change in attitudes across the political spectrum towards privatising the NHS.

At the start of this post, I described how ‘battle-lines … are often drawn at the level of individual words’. With respect to words whose semantic prosody is clearly negative or clearly positive, this means politicians need to be selective with the use of such words to ensure that their associated meanings are compatible with the arguments they are trying to make. With words that are more neutral, the perception of negativity or positivity will depend on their specific semantic context. This requires the intended sense of the word to be indicated through its combination with other words (e.g. ‘the NHS time-bomb’ to indicate that the speaker views the NHS negatively).

Continuing the metaphor, there are also instances of the ‘battle-lines’ being blurred. This occurs with the word ‘multiculturalism’, which seems to have acquired very negative associations in some parts of the media. A quick search of ‘multiculturalism’ in The Mail Online using the LexisNexis database suggests it is a harmful form of indoctrination: ‘gross multiculturalism’, ‘the pernicious policy of multiculturalism’, ‘the flawed doctrine of multiculturalism’, ‘the ideologues of multiculturalism’. Yet my own experience is that, for many people, the word is still associated with positive notions such as diversity, equality and open-mindedness.

For politicians and the electorate alike, such contrasting interpretations of the same word may be the cause of considerable misunderstanding. A voter supportive of the promotion of cultural diversity in Britain may be suspicious of the word ‘multiculturalism’ to describe this if in their mind it is associated with an attempt to suppress their own cultural identity. In this way, with the May elections on the horizon, politicians will need to be careful when selecting words to express their values: is their understanding of what those words mean the same as their audience’s? As the word ‘multiculturalism’ illustrates, sometimes this might not be the case.

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