Table of Contents
- Theoretical Background
- Connection Between Language and Power
- Language in Media
- Language in Politics
- Language Power
- Powerless Language
- Research at Columbia
When we hear the word “power” our first association is the power of one man over another or of one’s strength. In this research paper, we are going to discuss about the power of language. Even though many people do not think so, language and power are closely related. Power is the ability to control events in order to achieve one’s aims and is also the control someone has over the outcomes of others (Wardhaugh, Fuller 2015: 32). It can be physical, but the most powerful people often use words. Language is a system of a linguistic communication particular to a group of people; this includes spoken, written and signed modes of communication. The power in language is shown through correct grammar, our word choice and usage. From the moment a person starts to speak, he can be categorized as a dominant or submissive speaker by the way he uses grammar and word choice. People are using language as their main tool for achieving status and power, and politics and media are the best examples. We can find power language in our everyday life; it is a language between parents and children, or a boss and his employers. In this paper, we will show how powerful language is connected to our everyday life. Even though we realize it or not, every person uses one form of power language at some point in his life.
We already mentioned that language is a system of a linguistic communication particular to a group of people and it includes spoken, written and signed modes of communication. A different group of people will use different type of language, for example, people from upper-class will use better and more powerful language than people from lower-class.
Language is not simply a means of communicating information – about the weather or any other subject. It is also very important means of establishing and maintaining relationships with other people. Probably the most important thing about the conversation between two people is not the words they are using, but the fact that they are talking at all.
People can learn more about us from the way we are speaking, then from what we actually tell them. Whenever we speak with someone, subconsciously, we are giving away clues about our origins and what type of a person we are. Our accent and our speech are giving away where we come from and what sort of background we have. All these information about us, that we are revealing without knowing, help our listener to create an opinion about us. Two aspects of language behaviour are very important from a social point of view: first, the function of language in establishing social relationships; and, second, the role player by language in conveying information about the speaker (Trudgill 2000: 2).
Connection Between Language and Power
There is a mutual relationship between “language and power”. Powerful institutions and individuals use language as both a means to construct their power and as a way to maintain it. Language is necessary for the maintenance of power, and the power and effect of language in turn rely on the power of individuals and institutions themselves. Power also refers to the ability of an entity (e.g., Companies, social groups, individuals, etc.) to make changes or to maintain things as they already are. There can be drawn a distinction between two different uses of language in the context of power relationship:
- Language as public discourse: the language used in the public print media, television and radio, and now, on the Web;
- Language as interpersonal communication: the language used when we as individuals interact with other individuals, e.g., friends talking, doctor and patient, teacher and students.
The power is not only sustained by force, but also by the use of language. Besides institutional power (for example the police) there also exist power relations between family members, between educated and uneducated people, and so on. Individuals and groups in this category of power relations use language as their main tool for maintaining status and power. The best example of power relations between family members is the role of a father in a phallocentric family where he would not need to resort to force in order to impose his authority over the other members of his family. This indicates that power relations are not only class-bound, but can also be manifested through the use of language during social interactions between individuals. This type of power is known as private discourse and it refers to the language used by individuals in their interactions with one another. This type of discourse retrieves its power and legitimacy from the social roles individuals play in their society.
Language in Media
Language in media is known as public discourse. Media power is generally symbolic and persuasive, which means that the media primarily have the potential to control to some extent the mind of viewers and reader, but not directing their actions. Psychological and sociological evidence suggests that despite the pervasive symbolic power of the media, the audience will generally retain a minimum of autonomy and independence, and engage more or less actively, instead of purely passively, in the “use” of the means of mass communication. In other words, whatever the symbolic power of the news media, at least some media users will generally be able to “resist” such persuasion. This suggests that mind control by the media should be particularly effective when the media users accept news reports as true or journalistic opinions as legitimate or correct.
Media has the most power over an uneducated person who is exposed daily to a media content that uses language to promote patriarchal principles. This person is likely to be influenced by such ideas, and might consequently put those principles into practice within his or her own life. The media in this case serve certain ideological purposes that might pertain to a dominant community.
The power exercised through this public use of language usually stems from the governments and political parties. Those powerful institutions use language and public discourse to construct and promote their dominance, by producing knowledge about society and advertising a given social practice. They are manipulating people to believe what they say. Manipulation as a form of media power enactment is usually evaluated in negative terms, because the mediated information is biased or concealed in such a way that the knowledge and beliefs of the audience are changed in a direction that is not necessarily in its best interest. The most important power of the media is the control over the flow of information. They control what actually gets into the press and how it is presented. Their primary means is shaping public opinion.
Language in Politics
Language is a powerful instrument employed by political leaders. They use linguistic strategies, including linguistic manipulation as an influential instrument of political rhetoric to persuade audiences for a specific political action. Political leaders deploy a broad range of manipulative and rhetorical devices at the phonological, syntactic, lexical, semantic, pragmatic and textual levels in their political discourse. The ability to use linguistic resources in accordance with the requirements of each communication type is a valuable skill in achieving personal or public goals. By way of an indirect manipulation of language, skilful speakers have traditionally been able to influence the preconceptions, views, ambitions and fears of the public, to the extent of causing people to accept false statements as true postulates, or even to support policies conflicting with their interests.
The wide range of potential linguistic choices a politican can make to build up his or her discourse may have a crucial effect in shaping an ideology that will lead people to more easily accept his or her arguments. The public, despite their historical, cultural, ideological or geographical differences, can be persuaded, guided or manipulated by their political leaders. The power in this public discourse is used negatively; it is used as an instrument to control peoples’ behaviour and their opinions.
Language is not only the words used, but also how those words are spoken. The listener will categorize you by your regional dialect, your volume, tempo, and tone of voice. Power also demands correct grammar, word choice and usage. In writing, power is conveyed through accurate and specific language. Language power is a measure of one’s ability to communicate effectively in a given language, specifically one that is not native to the speaker. Language power consists of two key components: an ability to speak and be understood and able to listen and understand.
The “power of language” not only means language in the service of power, language can also undermine power. Language possesses itself power of a very special kind. The relation of language and power is ambivalent. The command of language itself becomes a means of power. This power of language extends from large political contexts, from the manner of speaking and thus also of thinking that dictatorships and totalitarian orders force upon dominated people, to the small scenes of everyday life, to the arts of seduction of advertising, the sales tricks of telephone marketing, or the menacing undertones at the workplace or in the family. Power can be represented in the way participants position themselves in interaction, and others, for example, in interviews, debates, consultations and speeches.
We can find two types of participants in the speech:
- The dominant participant;
- The submissive participant.
The Dominant Participant
The dominant participant will initiate the conversation, set the agenda, control the topics, interrupt, and overlap. Dominant participants often stifle collaborative problem solving and creativity among participants. But they often have good ideas that deserve consideration. Good leaders need to direct the energies of dominant participates in a nonthreating way so that others have opportunities to contribute.
The Submissive Participant
In the conversation the submissive participants will listen carefully and answer the question only when they are asked to. They rarely ask questions but rather choose to be silent; therefore they would respond rather than initiate. Submissive communicators will treat the needs and rights of others as more important than their own and seek to play a minimal part during meetings or discussions. They will try to hide and even become invisible, so people would not notice them. They will try to say very much less, even be largely silent.
The submissive participant will follow the set agenda of the conversation. They tend to agree with what dominant people say even if it is not true. They want to avoid conflicts at any cost so they keep their opinions to themselves and they follow the conversation agreeing with dominant people. In their conversation they will use respectful, form of address and try to avoid familiarity. When we say that submissive people use form of address it means that they talk to others with respect, it is equivalent to saying Vi instead of ti in Croatian language.
They also often use fillers and vague language. A filler word is a meaningless word, phrase or sound that marks a pause or hesitation in speech. Some of the common filler words in English are um, er, like, okay, right or you know. These words are used when the speaker is groping for words or at loss for the next thought. It can be a sign of nervousness; they fear silence and experience speaker anxiety. Vague means that something is not clear or detailed. For example, if someone asks you what you did yesterday and you reply “Just some stuff at home”, you gave a vague answer, without any details at all. Submissive communicators give short and unclear answers mostly because they are shy and they want to stay out of the conversation. Individuals exhibiting submissive behaviours focus on pleasing other people and avoiding conflict.
Powerless language sounds negative, but actually it is very important to learn it. Powerless language includes asking people rather than ordering them something (for example, saying “Would you mind getting my mail?” rather than “Get my mail!”). It is also used when speaking to a superior or asking for a favour. We would never speak to our boss in an incredibly direct manner by giving them orders, especially if we need a favour from them. We would ask in what we would consider a polite way. However, these are more complex sentences and do not necessarily come automatically when we are first learning a language and it is important that these are explicitly taught since they lead to better work relationship.
Research at Columbia
Columbia psychologists speculated that speakers fill pauses when searching for the next word. To investigate this idea, they counted the use of filler words used by lecturers in biology, chemistry, and mathematics, where the subject matter uses scientific definitions that limit the variety of word choices available to the speaker. They then compared the number of filler words used by teachers in English, art history, and philosophy, where the subject matter is less well-defined and more open to word choices.
Twenty science lecturers used an average of 1.39 uh’s a minute, compared with 4.85 uh’s a minute by thirteen humanities teachers. Their conclusion is that the subject matter and breadth of vocabulary may determine the use of filler words more than habit or anxiety. Whatever the reason, the cure for filler words is preparation. You reduce nervousness and pre-select the right ways to say ideas through preparation and practice.
In this research paper, we can see that language is often viewed as having no power of its own and yet can produce influence and control by revealing the power behind the speaker. Examples of powerful language are everywhere around us, in the media, newspapers, politics, even in our everyday life. We usually do not recognize it or think twice about it, nevertheless it is always present. The language-power relationships are dynamically interrelated, one influencing the other, and each can draw from an array of the cognitive, communicative, social, and identity functions of language.
- Dijk, A. Teun. Power and the News Media. University of Amsterdam
- Trudgill, Peter. Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society. London: Penguin Books, 2000.
- Timm, R. Paul. Bienvenu, Sherran. Straight Talk: Oral Communication for Career Success. New York and London: Routledge, 2011
- Wardhaugh, Ronald. Fuller, M. Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. London: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2015.
- “The Power of Language: A Philosophical-Sociological Reflection”, Weiss, Johannes. Schwietring, Thomas, Goethe – Institut, 16.01.2019. http://www.goethe.de/lhr/prj/mac/msp/en1253450.htm
- “Power, Language and Social Relations: Doing Things with Words”, Sourgo Youssef, Morocco World News, 15.01.2019. https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2013/07/99544/power-language-and-social-relations-doing-things-with-words/ (Jul 31, 2013)
- “Language and Power”, Ng Hung, Sik. Deng, Fei, Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 15.01.2019. http://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228613-e-436 (August 2017)