The semantics of the throne speech: What was Harper really saying?

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Social scientists argue that language shapes its speakers' view of reality and determines the scope of the possible for them. If this is true, by looking at the language of the speeches from the throne one is able to gain some insights into political leaders' view of reality.

Their worldview counts indeed because they "are in positions to make decisions having major consequences."

Commentaries on the speeches from the throne normally aim to interpret key ideas that will define the government’s agenda for the months to come. They rarely pay attention to the language of these speeches. Commentators also seldom offer a retrospective and comparative take on the messages coming from the government.

Techniques of quantitative content analysis facilitate bridging these gaps, at least to some extent. Content analysis helps identify words preferred by political leaders when crafting their messages and most common constellations of these words. As a result, we are better able to assess the scope of the possible for a particular government, from both a retrospective and comparative perspective.

How does the language of the Harper government stand compared with its predecessors and foreign, namely, American, counterparts?

I analyzed the content of 15 speeches from the throne delivered during past 25 (from January 1994 through October 2013). They were compared with 21 State of the Union addresses presented by the U.S. presidents during the same period of time. (In contrast to the speech from the Throne, the State of the Union address is prepared every year).

Question of the form: Good and bad communicators

The government’s speech targets a diverse audience: ordinary people, members of the power elite and international observers. It means that its language must be understandable to everyone, including people without a college degree. As the editor of a general interest newspaper put it, "even a fifth grader should be able to read contributions published in our paper." The same applies to the government’s speech, arguably.

There are several measures for readability -- Flesch score is one of them. It is calculated on the assumption that the longer words and sentences, the more difficult it is to make sense of a message.

Of the three Canadian Prime Ministers in the past 20 years, Paul Martin prepared the longest speeches (29066 characters without spaces on average), Stephen Harper -- the shortest (21715 characters). The U.S. Presidents needed more words to convey their plans, on average (31148 characters without spaces).

Bill Clinton is the absolute champion according to this criterion. The preference for delivering longer addresses did not prevent President Clinton from being easy to understand, nevertheless. The average Flesch score of his addresses is 70.9 (the easiest to read text has the score of 120; even a first grader can understand it). Only President Obama fares better -- so far (71.6).

The Canadian Prime Ministers are not noted for excellent communicative skills. The Harper government outperforms its predecessors (the Flesch score of 47.8, as opposed to 47.6 in the case of the Chrétien government and 45.9 for the Martin government). But there is a rather long way to go before we understand our government’s intentions as easy as Americans grasp intentions of theirs.

On the substance of the matter: Changing emphasis

The government’s preference for particular words gives us some clues as to its priorities. Even a cursory look at top ten most frequently used words (Table 1) shows an important difference between Canadian and American leaders.

The Canadian Prime Ministers place heavier emphasis on the government (their most popular word, as a matter of fact), whereas the word "government" comes 21st in the list of President Obama’s most frequent words and 15th in the list of President Bush’s preferred words.

Even if the Canadian and American leaders speak the same language, their selection of words remarkably differ. Judging by constellations of words found in the government's speeches, the Canadian Prime Ministers form a separate and rather homogeneous group (Figure 1).

The U.S. Presidents, on the other hand, seem to speak various "dialects" as their speeches form three clusters instead of just one. Each of the U.S. Presidents has his own selection of preferred words.  

Figure 1. Degree of similarity between government's speeches judging by word co-occurence

Legend: the closer two speeches, the more similar they are in terms of word co-occurrence. Lines represent particularly strong connections. GGC stands for the Governor General of Canada.

If we regroup preferred words in several categories, we would be able to see how the focus on specific topics changes in time and across the border. One of the strategies for categorization refers to using binary categories representing opposite ideas: the West (any mention of the Western countries) and the East (mentions of the non-Western countries: China, Russia, India, Brazil, Iran), Innovations (the word "innovation" and similar) and Traditions (references to traditions, customs, cultural heritage in general) and so forth.

I used six binary categories: Communism-Liberalism, State interventionism-Free market, Policy priorities (including war on terror)-Rule of law, Power (including the military and the police)-Trust in addition to the two previously mentioned oppositions.

The latest speech from the throne has the strongest emphasis ever on the military issues (22.1 per cent of all categorized words and expressions). Only the speech of October 2007 -- also prepared by the Harper government -- has the same unique emphasis.

References to traditions come second and to the state interventionism -- third. To compare: the Chrétien government in the January 2001 speech placed the heaviest emphasis on the issue of innovations (41.5 per cent of all categorized words and expressions, then on the state interventionism and on the free market).

Generally speaking, the Canadian leaders pay more attention to innovations, whereas their American counterparts -- to the Eastern direction in their foreign policy and to policy priorities (war on terror) as opposed to the priority of the rule of law.

The conservative government pay far less attention to innovations than its predecessors and much more to the military issues and policing. If the idea of innovation and innovativeness turns to be disregarded at the discursive level, one should not wait for long untill the country loses its innovative edge in practice. At the beginning was the word.

Anton Oleinik, PhD, is an Associate professor of Sociology at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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