linguistically obama


On Obama’s victory style
A correspondent – from the Sunday Times, no less – writes to ask what I thought of the Barack Obama speech, stylistically. A selection of my off-the-cuff remarks is printed in today’s ST. Here are some on-the-cuff reflections.

Speaking as a stylistician – as opposed to a human being (if you’ll allow me the distinction), as excited as anyone about this event – it blew me away. As the speech started, I turned to my wife and said, ‘He’ll never do it!’ What was I noticing? It was the opening if-clause, a 41-word cliff-hanger with three who-clause embeddings. Starting a major speech with a subordinate clause? And one of such length and syntactic complexity? I thought he would be lucky if he was able to round it off neatly after the first comma. Try it for yourself: get a sense of the strain on your memory by starting a sentence with a 19-word if-clause, and see what it feels like. But he didn’t stop at 19 words. The first who-clause is followed by a second. Then a third. It was real daring. It’s difficult for listeners to hold all that in mind. But it worked. And then the short 4-word punch-clause. And deserved applause.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

How did it work? How can you get people to process 41 words easily? By following some basic rules of rhetoric. One is to structure your utterance, where possible, into groups of three.

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time,
who still questions the power of our democracy

The other is to make sure that none of these chunks exceed what is easy to process in working memory. Psycholinguists once worked out a ‘magic rule of seven, plus or minus two’ – that most people find seven ‘bits’ of information the most they can handle at a time. Get someone to repeat after you a sequence of random digits:

8, 6
9, 5, 7
4, 2, 7, 5
9, 3, 6, 8, 2
8, 4, 6, 9, 2, 7
2, 5, 3, 8, 6, 9, 4

People start sensing a difficulty when the sequence reaches five. Some can’t get beyond this. Most of us get into trouble if we try to remember more than seven, though some people can handle up to nine without a problem. (The psycholinguistic issues aren’t as simple as this, but the basic idea is illuminating.)

Here are those three who-clauses with the main information-carrying words in bold and tallied:

who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, 7
who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, 6
who still questions the power of our democracy

As the sentence progresses, note how the demands on our memory get shorter. In fact the demands are even less than the numbers suggest because of the structural parallelism: who still doubts… still wonders… still questions…. With still set up as part of the pattern, we do not need to devote any processing energy to it, and can concentrate on the following verb.

The rhetorical ‘rule of three’ is an important feature of the speech. It’s something that all famous speech-makers use. Churchill was brilliant at it. But all public speakers know that they can get a round of applause if they use a triptych with structural parallelism:

I was with you yesterday
I am with you today
And I shall be with you tomorrow!

You have to put it across right, of course, with an appropriate prosodic climax. Obama is brilliant at that too.

What you mustn’t do is overdo it. For Obama to follow this first paragraph immediately with another triptych wouldn’t work. A different stylistic technique is needed to provide variety and maintain pace. He switches to a ‘pairs’ structure – and pairs within pairs. The ‘lines’ vs ‘people’ contrast is itself a pair – but it contains paired noun phrases:

lines that stretched around schools and churches…
people who waited three hours and four hours…

Note how, strictly speaking, the pairing is unnecessary. He could have said simply:

lines that stretched around buildings…
people who waited hours…

but the pairing is more effective. A triptych is unwise here, for the underlying meaning is banale, and to keep it going would be to produce a sense of padding:

people who waited three hours and four hours and five hours…

He rounds the paragraph off with another pairing:

they believed
that this time must be different,
that their voices could be that difference.

And then he produces what, to my mind, is stylistically the most daring piece in the whole text: a list entirely consisting of pairs. From a content point of view, lists are dangerous, as they prompt people to notice who might have been left out. But that evening, I don’t think anyone was counting. Yet it’s worth noting that he respects the ‘rule of seven’ – there are just seven groups mentioned (or six, if you put the ethnic groups together):

young and old
rich and poor
Democrat and Republican
black, white,
Hispanic, Asian, Native American
gay, straight
disabled and not disabled

Why omit the ands in the middle group? Precisely because the omission of and reduces the force of the contrast and allows the suggestion that the list can be extended. Unlike ‘young and old’ and the others, the list of ethnic groups is open-ended. Maybe the same open-endedness applies also to ‘gay, straight’ – I’m not sure.

This first section of the speech ends with more pairs within pairs:

we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

Having devoted so much rhetorical energy to pairs, it’s not surprising to see him round off this first section with more triples:

cynical and fearful and doubtful…
on this date, in this election, at this defining moment…

And we should also notice that the whole of this first section is structured as a triptych. Each of the paragraphs after the first begins in the same way:

It’s the answer told…
It’s the answer spoken…
It’s the answer that led…

And the paragraph lengths are almost the same: 52 words, 53 words, 48 words. So we have threes within balanced threes. Elegant.

When you go in for rhetorical structures, you have to know when to use them and when not to use them. Obama’s second section is a series of acknowledgments and thanks. This is a more personal sequence, and this kind of sincerity needs to be expressed in a more loosely structured language. No climactic rhetoric wanted here. Sentences are shorter, the vocabulary is more private and down-to-earth, and the only hint of elaborate structuring is a single triptych in honour of his wife:

the rock of our family, the love of my life, the nation’s next first lady

The rhetorical contrast with the rousing first section is striking.

One of the things actors know is that, in a long speech, they have to leave themselves somewhere else to go. This is something I’ve learned from actor son Ben. If you put all your energy into the opening lines of a soliloquy, you’ll find it trailing away into nothing before the end. Rather, start low and steadily build up. Or, divide the speech up into sections and introduce peaks and troughs. Or, divide it into sections and treat each section in a different way. Obama’s speech goes for this last option. It has several sections, each very different in content, and it is the switch of content which motivates a switch of style and renews the audience’s motivation to listen. Each section ends with a short audience-rousing statement:

An opening section:
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

A ‘thanks’ section:
It belongs to you.

An ‘origins’ section (‘I was never the likeliest candidate for this office…’)
This is your victory.

A ‘scale of the problem’ section (‘And I know you didn’t do this just to win an election…’)
I promise you, we as a people will get there.

A ‘challenges’ section (‘There will be setbacks and false starts…’)
And I will be your president too.

A ‘story’ section (‘This election had many firsts…’)
Yes we can.

Note what happens after the rhetorical ‘lull’ in the ‘thanks’ section. He returns to the rule of three, pounding steadily away:

It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Chicago and the front porches of Charleston.
…to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause.
…Americans who volunteered and organized and proved…
…a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
…two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.
…how they’ll make the mortgage or pay their doctors’ bills or save enough for their child’s college education.
…new energy to harness, new jobs to be created, new schools to build…
…block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
…a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice … a new spirit of patriotism.
…partisanship and pettiness and immaturity…
…self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.
To those who would tear the world down… To those who seek peace and security… And to all those who have wondered…

When he reached the end of his ‘challenges’ section, I thought the speech was about to end. It used two time-honoured ending motifs. First there is a sequence of four rather than three:

the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

And then an appeal to the future:

What we’ve already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

He could have stopped there. But then there was an electrifying change, as he moved from the general (‘America can change’) to the particular (‘Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old’).

It was a risky strategy. The end of the speech was not far off. He had just produced several hundred words of highly crafted rhetoric, with many vivid and climactic images – ‘from parliaments and palaces’, ‘America’s beacon still burns as bright’, ‘the true genius of America’. The audience is being brought to the boil. To tell a quiet, intimate story now could have produced an anticlimax. But it didn’t. Why?

Because the speech-writers had a trick up their sleeve. The Cooper story starts quietly:

She was born just a generation past slavery…

but within a few words she is part of a new rhetorical build-up, first with a pair:

…a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky…

and then a stunning triptych, with each element containing a pair:

I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America –
the heartache and the hope;
the struggle and the progress;
the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

There’s the trick that gets the speech out of any possible trouble. The audience has already shouted ‘Yes we can’, three times, at an earlier point. It has become a catch-phrase, used throughout the campaign. The real climax of the speech is going to build on that.

But an audience has to be taught what to do, by way of reaction. People won’t intervene en masse in the middle of a story. They have to be invited. And Obama uses the rule of three to teach them.

…with that American creed. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
… and reach for the ballot. Yes we can. [no noticeable response]
… a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can. [audience: Yes we can.]

From then on, he’s home and dry. Every ‘Yes we can’ trigger is going to get a response. The triptych rhetoric continues to flow:

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma…
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected…
to put our people back to work… to restore prosperity… to reclaim the American dream…

And there, with ‘dream’, he ends as he began. ‘Dream’ is a powerful word in American political rhetoric, thanks to Martin Luther King. King is not mentioned in the speech, but he is there in spirit, from the beginning to the end. Obama’s opening words link dreams to questions. His closing words link dreams to answers. The speech is a Martin Luther King sandwich, and it went down very very well indeed.

I still don’t know how he did it. Was he reading from some teleprompter somehow? Was it memorized? Was it partly prompted and memorized? But however he did it, it will rank as one of the great political speeches of our time. It won’t rank with the very best, without editing, because the ‘thank-you’ section particularizes and personalizes too much. The thanks to campaign managers and the like has no permanent resonance. But there are sections here which are as fine as anything I’ve ever heard in a speech. And if the role of style is to get one’s content across as effectively as possible, then Obama and his speech-makers have proved themselves to be stylists second to none.

The new Cicero

Barack Obama’s speeches are much admired and endlessly analysed, but, says Charlotte Higgins, one of their most interesting aspects is the enormous debt they owe to the oratory of the Romans

Charlotte Higgins, Wednesday November 26 2008 00.01 GMT


In the run-up to the US presidential election, the online magazine Slate ran a series of dictionary definitions of “Obamaisms”. One ran thus: “Barocrates (buh-ROH-cruh-teez) n. An obscure Greek philosopher who pioneered a method of teaching in which sensitive topics are first posed as questions then evaded.”

There were other digs at Barack Obama that alluded to ancient Greece and Rome. When he accepted the Democratic party nomination, he did so before a stagey backdrop of doric columns. Republicans said this betrayed delusions of grandeur: this was a temple out of which Obama would emerge like a self-styled Greek god. (Steve Bell also discerned a Romanness in the image, and drew Obama for this paper as a toga-ed emperor.) In fact, the resonance of those pillars was much more complicated than the Republicans would have it. They recalled the White House, which itself summoned up visual echoes of the Roman republic, on whose constitution that of the US is based. They recalled the Lincoln Memorial, before which Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. They recalled the building on which the Lincoln Memorial is based – the Parthenon. By drawing us symbolically to Athens, we were located at the very birthplace of democracy.

Here’s the thing: to understand the next four years of American politics, you are going to need to understand something of the politics of ancient Greece and Rome.

There have been many controversial aspects to this presidential election, but one thing is uncontroversial: that Obama’s skill as an orator has been one of the most important factors – perhaps the most important factor – in his victory. The sheer numbers of people who have heard him speak live set him apart from his rivals – and, indeed, recall the politics of ancient Athens, where the public speech given to ordinary voters was the motor of politics, and where the art of rhetoric matured alongside democracy.

Obama has bucked the trend of recent presidents – not excluding Bill Clinton – for dumbing down speeches. Elvin T Lim’s book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W Bush, submits presidential oratory to statistical analysis. He concludes that 100 years ago speeches were pitched at college reading level. Now they are at 8th grade. Obama’s speeches, by contrast, flatter their audience. His best speeches are adroit literary creations, rich, like those doric columns, with allusion, his turn of phrase consciously evoking lines by Lincoln and King, by Woody Guthrie and Sam Cooke. Though he has speechwriters, he does much of the work himself. (Jon Favreau, the 27-year-old who heads Obama’s speechwriting team, has said that his job is like being “Ted Williams’s batting coach.”) James Wood, professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard, has already performed a close-reading exercise on the victory speech for the New Yorker. Can you imagine the same being done of a George Bush speech?

More than once, the adjective that has been deployed to describe Obama’s oratorical skill is “Ciceronian”. Cicero, the outstanding Roman politician of the late republic, was certainly the greatest orator of his time, and one of the greatest in history. A fierce defender of the republican constitution, his criticism of Mark Antony got him murdered in 43BC.

During the Roman republic (and in ancient Athens) politics was oratory. In Athens, questions such as whether or not to declare war on an enemy state were decided by the entire electorate (or however many bothered to turn up) in open debate. Oratory was the supreme political skill, on whose mastery power depended. Unsurprisingly, then, oratory was highly organised and rigorously analysed. The Greeks and Romans, in short, knew all the rhetorical tricks, and they put a name to most of them.

It turns out that Obama knows them, too. One of the best known of Cicero’s techniques is his use of series of three to emphasise points: the tricolon. (The most enduring example of a Latin tricolon is not Cicero’s, but Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” – I came, I saw, I conquered.) Obama uses tricola freely. Here’s an example: “Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation, not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy …” In this passage, from the 2004 Democratic convention speech, Obama is also using the technique of “praeteritio” – drawing attention to a subject by not discussing it. (He is discounting the height of America’s skyscrapers etc, but in so doing reminds us of their importance.)

One of my favourites among Obama’s tricks was his use of the phrase “a young preacher from Georgia”, when accepting the Democratic nomination this August; he did not name Martin Luther King. The term for the technique is “antonomasia”. One example from Cicero is the way he refers to Phoenix, Achilles’ mentor in the Iliad, as “senior magister” – “the aged teacher”. In both cases, it sets up an intimacy between speaker and audience, the flattering idea that we all know what we are talking about without need for further exposition. It humanises the character – King was just an ordinary young man, once. Referring to Georgia by name localises the reference – Obama likes to use the specifics to American place to ground the winged sweep of his rhetoric – just as in his November 4 speech: “Our campaign … began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston”, which, of course, is also another tricolon.

Obama’s favourite tricks of the trade, it appears, are the related anaphora and epiphora. Anaphora is the repetition of a phrase at the start of a sentence. Again, from November 4: “It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools … It’s the answer spoken by young and old … It’s the answer …” Epiphora does the same, but at the end of a sentence. From the same speech (yet another tricolon): “She lives to see them stand out and speak up and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.” The phrase “Yes we can” completes the next five paragraphs.

That “Yes we can” refrain might more readily summon up the call-and-response preaching of the American church than classical rhetoric. And, of course, Obama has been influenced by his time in the congregations of powerfully effective preachers. But James Davidson, reader in ancient history at the University of Warwick, points out that preaching itself originates in ancient Greece. “The tradition of classical oratory was central to the early church, when rhetoric was one of the most important parts of education. Through sermons, the church captured the rhetorical tradition of the ancients. America has preserved that, particularly in the black church.”

It is not just in the intricacies of speechifying that Obama recalls Cicero. Like Cicero, Obama is a lawyer. Like Cicero, Obama is a writer of enormous accomplishment – Dreams From My Father, Obama’s first book, will surely enter the American literary canon. Like Cicero, Obama is a “novus homo” – the Latin phrase means “new man” in the sense of self-made. Like Cicero, Obama entered politics without family backing (compare Clinton) or a military record (compare John McCain). Roman tradition dictated you had both. The compensatory talent Obama shares with Cicero, says Catherine Steel, professor of classics at the University of Glasgow, is a skill at “setting up a genealogy of forebears – not biological forebears but intellectual forebears. For Cicero it was Licinius Crassus, Scipio Aemilianus and Cato the Elder. For Obama it is Lincoln, Roosevelt and King.”

Steel also points out how Obama’s oratory conforms to the tripartite ideal laid down by Aristotle, who stated that good rhetoric should consist of pathos, logos and ethos – emotion, argument and character. It is in the projection of ethos that Obama particularly excels. Take this resounding passage: “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations.” He manages to convey the sense that not only can he revive the American dream, but that he personally embodies – actually, in some sense, is – the American dream.

In English, when we use the word “rhetoric”, it is generally preceded by the word “empty”. Rhetoric has a bad reputation. McCain warned lest an electorate be “deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change”. Waspishly, Clinton noted, “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” The Athenians, too, knew the dangers of a populace’s being swept along by a persuasive but unscrupulous demagogue (and they invented the word). And it was the Roman politician Cato – though it could have been McCain – who said “Rem tene, verba sequentur”. If you hold on to the facts, the words will follow.

Cicero was well aware of the problem. In his book On The Orator, he argues that real eloquence can be acquired only if the speaker has attained the highest state of knowledge – “otherwise what he says is just an empty and ridiculous swirl of verbiage”. The true orator is one whose practice of citizenship embodies a civic ideal – whose rhetoric, far from empty, is the deliberate, rational, careful organiser of ideas and argument that propels the state forward safely and wisely. This is clearly what Obama, too, is aiming to embody: his project is to unite rhetoric, thought and action in a new politics that eschews narrow bipartisanship. Can Obama’s words translate into deeds? The presidency of George Bush provided plenty of evidence that a man who has problems with his prepositions may also struggle to govern well. We can only hope that Obama’s presidency proves that opposite.

• Charlotte Higgins is the author of It’s All Greek To Me: From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World (Short Books).


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