Monday, June 05, 2006

Voice of the people?

We all know that these days politicians strive for that common touch (and I don't mean John Prescott yearning for desk action with a secretary) but how far are they prepared to go to reach out to the masses in their own language?

A report in yesterday's Observer tells us that "David Cameron, the somewhat posh Old Etonian leader of the Tories, comes over as a more credible 'man of the people' than Gordon Brown, the 'down-to-earth' Labour Chancellor and probable next Prime Minister, according to a new study of top politicians' vocabulary".

The report goes on to explain that the criteria used to ascertain this "common touch" come from a programme called "Everyday English" which monitors sentence length, the use of core vocabulary and teh number of syllables used.

"All of which, it turns out, favours Cameron over Brown. The Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, lags behind them both. Tony Blair finishes slightly in front of Cameron, though John Major registers more convincingly as 'one of us' than any of them. And none can hold a candle to an EastEnders script that was fed through the computer filter."

So, does this mean that Blair and Cameron genuinely speak the language of the streets ("Wahgwan Gordon, dat rave was heavy, blood") or just that they have mastered the art of accommodating towards what they see as their target audience? And what does this tell us about their perception of the language and identity of their target audience - i.e. the swing voters who might switch allegiances before the next election - that they are aiming their language at?

The danger (as we've seen with Labour moving into political ground once occupied by the Conservatives and the Conservatives desperately trying to recapture that ground) is that the politicians speak a language they think we want to hear but in the process have no distinct voice of their own. The upshot of this is often to give us smooth soundbites in easily digestible language, which mean absolutely nothing. Meanwhile, those with an identifiable voice (however objectionable) become more attractive as they appear to be speaking from the heart (witness the growth of nazi nutters, the BNP in Barking & Dagenham and other areas across the country).

You can find out more about the programme used to analyse the language and its uses here.

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigation

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