Language and the General Election 2019

Published: Posted on

13th December 2019

Well, the votes are cast and results in. And to distract us, here are some observations about language use during the election campaign and in the immediate aftermath.

One casualty of the 2019 election may be the political interview. A striking phenomenon in both TV and radio interviews has been the breaking of turn-taking rules. Interviewees have simply gone on talking when the interviewer has asked a question, and in some cases there were two monologues – interviewer and interviewee – with neither speaker giving way to the other. So ingrained is the ‘one speaker at a time’ rule of interaction that it takes some determination to consistently break it. The other strategy used by interviewees has been to label the interviewer’s speech as ‘interruption’. The pained ‘may I finish?’ has been heard over and over again. In most cases, the interviewer has not interrupted in the classic West and Zimmerman sense (that is, they have not started to speak outside a transition relevance place), but the interviewee has not completed what they wished to say and has labelled the interviewer’s question an interruption. So marked has this phenomenon been that I wonder if we are seeing the death of the political interview. Maybe all politicians see taking part in an interview as a dangerous act, with questions undermining the point they want to get across. Refusing to stop talking is a way of undermining the genre. But we lose the political interview at our peril. In the 1980s, it was forbidden to broadcast the voices of dissident Irish republicans. Instead, statements they made were voiced ‘by an actor’. As a consequence, and as noted at the time, they were reported but never interviewed and the arguments they made went unchallenged.

Some of the language used by both Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn sounds uncannily like that of one Donald Trump. ‘Get Brexit done’ and ‘Make American great again’ have a kind of parallelism. Mr Corbyn has referred to ‘unbelievable levels of abuse’ and ‘more personal abuse than any other leader has ever received’, with an echo of Trump’s trademark use of superlatives. Does this mean that Johnson and Corbyn are copying or are influenced by Trump’s speech style? Probably not – it’s more that Trump’s exaggerated style of speech casts a shadow over the language of other politicians, so that quite ordinary and justifiable comments sound like echoes of the US President.

One of the cheesier moments of the campaign was Mr Johnson apparently illustrating his claim to have an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit by taking pies out of an oven. The verbal and visual metaphors were commented on as such by reporters in a strikingly frequent use of metalanguage.

And, in case it needs saying, Brexit has been consolidated as an accepted term by its acceptance of a range of adjectives: ‘oven-ready’ and ‘sell-out’ joining ‘cliff-edge’, ‘soft’ and others as the word takes on a life of its own.

Both major parties have faced accusations of racism: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. It is interesting how different these terms are, morphologically. However, both carry a great deal of baggage and a re-naming might be in order. More recently, the term ‘anti-Jewish racism’ has been used by Jewish groups, presumably both to lose that baggage and to name the victim group (Jewish) and the activity (racism) more directly.

And finally, a reminder: ‘banter’ is not an excuse for bullying or abuse, and neither (Mr Ashworth) is an excuse for indiscretion.

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