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What Is Language Politics?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term language politics refers to all the ways that language can be used as leverage to manage people, gain power and promote special interests. For example, many countries have an official language, and immigrants are often expected to know that language. Language politics is also demonstrated in the way that certain words go out of favor and become "politically incorrect." If a person uses these outdated words, he or she might be viewed as a bigot, or at the very least, unenlightened. Some words that refer to race, sex, origin or sexual orientation can be used to do emotional harm to people.

Politicians have their own special language when it comes to language politics. They often use vague wording and euphemisms. For example, a politician might use the phrase “the sacrifices of our ancestors” to influence constituents to support a war. In order to soothe angry tempers, he or she might talk about “service to our nation” in a speech about raising taxes.

Sometimes the language of politicians is not so vague. “It’s the economy, stupid,” was Bill Clinton’s rallying cry during his first run for president of the US. James Carville, Clinton’s campaign strategist, came up with the slogan, which was intended to malign political rivals for not addressing economic issues.

Countries designate official languages to simplify government operations, legal issues, health, safety and other societal interactions. People who do not speak the official or recognized language may be marginalized. They may have difficulty adjusting to their new home and a harder time finding jobs — especially jobs that pay well. In the US, English as a second language (ESL) courses are offered. Surprisingly, the US does not have an official language, although English is the de facto language.

Words are often an issue in language politics when it comes to referring to gender, race, origin and sexual preference. Some of these words can become outdated. If a person is not aware of this, he or she is not thought to be "politically correct." Examples of this in the US are referring to women as "chicks" or referring to Asians as "Orientals."

The common saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” should be reconsidered in the light of hate speech. Hate speech can be defined as the use of derogatory words or epithets with the aim of causing emotional turmoil or harm. Words do indeed have power based on the emotions and intent of the speaker.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Feb 08, 2015

Does anyone have an opinion on requiring immigrants to pass a language or history test in order to become citizens? Do you think that this is fair? My parents also had to pass this type of test for citizenship. I realize that this is about assimilation but I don't think it's very necessary.

By turquoise — On Feb 07, 2015

@ysmina-- Have you read "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell. It was published in 1946 but Orwell's ideas and findings about political language are just as applicable today. Orwell explained in this essay that political language is vague and sometimes even meaningless because that's the best way to hide the truth. Orwell felt that since politicians cannot truthfully express realities without severe backlash, they have to use vague terms and euphemisms to describe incidents and developments. I highly recommend reading his essay if you have not.

By ysmina — On Feb 06, 2015

I highly urge college students to take a course on propaganda if they get the opportunity. I took a course on this topic in school and it was very enlightening. We learned about how leaders and politicians manipulate opinions of the public and rally them using language. It's all very calculated and most of us don't even realize that we're being taking in when we listen to political speeches.

Politics really uses very different language from what we use in our every day life. There are many strategies and techniques involved. For example, politicians love to exaggerate and remind people of past traumas to gather their support. The strange thing is that people fall for it every time. I'm happy to say though, that since taking a course on propaganda, I always know it when I see it. I know that it's all political talk.

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