“The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases [...] one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.” (George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946)
Language is important. Along with other indicators of communication, such as body language, it tells people who we are and what matters to us. The web has created opportunities for written and, in this case, spoken language to be examined with much more scrutiny than in previous generations.
As a way of illustrating the significance of linguistic choice, we analysed the use of language in UK parliament debates from December 1935 to March 2010. The terms of recent Prime Ministers are highlighted at the bottom of each graph for reference. It’s also worth keeping in mind that Alistair Campbell became Director of Communications for the Labour Government in the year 2000. (Click any image to see a larger version.)
Bonus statistic for the above graph: there were 0.01 ‘tribute’ mentions per British casualty of war (World War II) in the 1940s parliament. In the 2000s, there were 14.9 ‘tribute’ mentions per British casualty of war (Afghanistan and Iraq) – though of course this recent statistic also includes the frequent modern tributes to nurses, firefighters, the police and other critical occupations.
Data Sources and Statistical Method
We used the parliamentary debates raw data provided by the excellent They Work For You website. Common words (the, at, honorable, minister, in, of, order, debate, sir, and so on) and infrequently used words were removed, with the remaining words grouped into a database by year. Note that the data for the years 1935 and 2010 is incomplete – we only used the data from the 26th November 1935 to 31st March 2010 – and so the statistics for the first and final years may not be reliable.
Each year differs in the number of debates, and hence volume of data. Therefore, rather than analysing the absolute count of usage for each word, we instead compared the count of each word against the total number words recorded in our database for the year – resulting in a percentage, which is more reliably comparable across years.