The Language of Politics

When we speak, we convey all kinds of information. The way we speak reflects – to a degree – who we are. Our linguistic habits, the words we use, and the grammatical choices we make are relatively stable over time and across contexts. And they may even give away our political inclinations.

Evidence from the USA and the UK shows that Conservatives use less complex language than Liberals. Our recently published study, based on 381.609 political speeches, shows that this relationship also exists in a number of European countries. These findings coincide with anecdotal evidence. Most notably, the Washington Post claimed that Republican US president Donald Trump speaks like a sixth-grader.

One could argue that politics is a complex business and should be communicated accordingly; that simple language is not appropriate for the gravity of political offices. But if you think of the most memorable statements by politicians, they are often very simple: “Yes, we can”, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”, “Tear down this wall”. So there may also be virtue in simplicity: it makes language more accessible to the public.

But why do Liberals and Conservatives speak differently? Some assume that these different patterns of speech are rooted in their personality. Dana Carney and her colleagues find that “Liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas Conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized”. As a result of these personality differences, conservatives use and prefer shorter, clearer statements, whereas Liberals use more ambiguous and complex language. For politicians, it could be important to speak the language of their electorate: It may decide whether or not someone will vote for them.

So which one’s better - simplicity or complexity? It depends on who’s talking.

P.S. The complexity score of this text is 10, which equates to the reading level of a 15 to 16 year old.

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