Lexicon

The word choices speakers and writers make can tell us much about their world views and attitudes toward political situations. Analysis based on lexicon is most profitably undertaken with a computer. One may use special programs for word analysis, such as Diction 5.0 (Sage Publications Software), or text editing programs that report extensive data about text files. The old-fashioned way works well, too, if you have the time. Here are things to look for:

  1. Nouns: Nouns tell us what interests a speaker. Are they concrete or abstract? Do they identify things or feelings? In what proportion do they balance the concrete and the abstract? Do they specifically define their abstract nouns or do they rely on the audience to supply a culturally accepted definition?
  2. Verbs: Verbs tell us what actions interest a speaker. Does the speaker use active verb forms so that the agent of the action is clear. Or does the writer hide the agent in passive constructions. Does the writer use metaphoric verbs?
  3. Ultimate or "god" terms: These are words that have a special force within a culture, i.e. "freedom" or "liberty." Communications scholar Roderick Hart1 claims that "much public oratory is little more than a clever interspersing of such words at appropriate times, which often turns genuine communication into mere word-saying."
  4. Code words or jargon: These are words meant to communicate special messages to a subgroup or limited members of a broader audience. Code words are meant to exclude some people from the communication. Code words may often be euphemisms, such as "collateral damage" for the killing of innocent civilians in a war zone.
  5. Adjectives: Words that writers use to modify nouns often reveal bias, such as the term "arch" used to modify "conservative." Adjectives also tell us much about the emotional involvement of the speaker. For example, there is a big difference between the "homeless" and the "forgotten homeless."
  6. Adverbs: Adverbs tell us much about what a speaker intends to do and how they intend to do it. Compare these statements: "We must save Social Security" and "We must move quickly to save Social Security."

Hart, Roderick. Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Boston: Allyn & Bacon: 1997.


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