Linguistic analysis of Martin Luther King’s
‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and Abraham Lincoln’s
The mode of both speeches is spoken. The immediate audience of Luther King’s speech was a crowd of the public who were at the Lincoln Memorial, most of whom would have been Luther King’s supporters. As this was an important event, and attracted a lot of attention, there would have been many journalists and television channels as part of a wider audience too. Martin Luther King was recorded and would have been seen on television and heard on radio by many other people. The event attracted world wide attention, and subsequently broadcast internationally.
Abraham Lincoln’s speech was spoken 100 years before King, when there was no radio or television. It was delivered at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19th 1863. This was during the American Civil War, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg. Where the speech was delivered was especially poignant as it was where 7,500 soldiers who had died in the battle were buried. Abraham Lincoln’s immediate audience was around 15,000 people, including governors of American States.
Both speeches have similar purpose. Luther King is fighting against racism, aiming for equality between all races, and calling for peace. Abraham Lincoln is showing his commitment to the war (against slavery), and stating that no Soldier at Gettysburg had died in vain. Both men have the same ideals.
Martin Luther King would have written and rehearsed his speech before it was presented so it might not show the signs of spontaneous language that may normally be evident in spoken language. This is because Luther King would want to appear confident and in control. He needed to be very clear about what he was going to say at a critical time in the development of the Civil Rights movement in America. In preparation he studied the Bible, The Gettysburg Address and the US Declaration of Independence and he alludes to all three in his address. These particular texts are significant to the movement. The Gettysburg address was delivered during the American Civil war by Abraham Lincoln, and relates closely to King’s speech as it is also a statement of freedom and democracy which define an era.
The tone is formal, but some fragments are less formal, to show togetherness by being more approachable and friendly, which makes the audience feel comfortable. The formal tone is used to promote respect and intelligence. His purpose was to inform and persuade the public that everyone should have equal rights. Abraham Lincoln’s speech is much more formal than King’s, because of the time period it was spoken in, and the setting for the speech is much more solemn, so he would use formal language to appear respectful.
Martin Luther King opens his speech with ‘I am happy to join with you today…’ The personal pronoun ‘I’ is used to express his own personal views (that he is happy to be there) and later on in the speech, his ideas and dreams. It also shows power, in that he is the one who is speaking. He directly address the audience with the personal pronoun ‘you’. This involves the audience in his speech, creating a bond. By saying he is ‘happy to join’, he using very positive lexis to describe how he feels being here. The word ‘join’ also expresses brotherhood and solidarity with his audience. In just his opening sentence, he has created the vision that he and his audience are in this together. Luther King does not use a phatic greeting, perhaps because he felt he should get straight to the purpose of why he was speaking.
Abraham Lincoln also wanted to create a sense of brotherhood and unity. He uses the noun ‘nation’ 5 times during his speech. This was to join the north and south of the country together. Both speakers are using the phonetic device of repetition.
To describe the significance of the demonstration, Luther King uses a superlative, ‘greatest’. The emphasis on the adjective ‘great’ expresses how important the demonstration is, and that it is a pivotal movement in the history of America. This also puts emphasis on the fact that he is among many thousands of people, so affirming the sense of unity – the belief that together, they can make a change.
The first half of the speech casts off the image of a pleasant American society, and instead illustrates a morally incorrect vision of racial injustice. It calls for action against racists.
He uses metaphoric language to describe the hope of Negro slaves, by comparing their hope of being freed to ‘a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity’. This also uses imagery, creating a vivid picture in the audiences mind. The contrast between ‘joyous daybreak’ and long night’ emphasizes the difference between being free and in captivity, as the positive and negative language is so different. ‘Long night’ also indicates they have been captive for too long. These balanced statements lend weight to his argument.
Similarly, Lincoln’s speech shows elements of oppositional lexis. He uses contrasting language when describing the death of the soldiers, and with the birth of freedom, while linking the two together. He uses a lexical field of ‘death’, with lexis such as ‘war’, ‘perish’, ‘died’, and ‘battlefield’. Lincoln used such language, although it is negative, to honour the soldiers, and as the nation was engaged in a Civil War. Martin Luther King avoided using such language, as he promoted peaceful protests.
As late as the 1960’s, people of colour were not treated as equals in America. An example of this is the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This was a political and social protest campaign, triggered by the arrest of African American Rosa Parks after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. The campaign began in 1955, and protested against Alabama’s policy of racial segregation on its public transport system. So although coloured people were not treated as slaves, they were still treated as second class citizens.
A conjunction is used at the beginning of the next sentence, ‘but one hundred years later…’ This is used to contrast one piece of information with another, and using it at the beginning of the sentence emphasizes the following words.
In this utterance, Luther King refers to ‘one hundred years later’. This refers to the Gettysburg address, delivered on November 19th 1863. By mentioning an exact length of time, he is making the speech more realistic and believable, and as the length of time is a hundred years, the words are shocking to the audience since that is a very long time. ‘One hundred years later’ is repeated 3 more times in different contexts in the next paragraph, which makes it memorable to the audience. This linguistic device is used throughout the speech, sometimes replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’.
Very negative utterances are used in the same paragraph to describe the present and historic circumstances of Negroes. Lexis such as ‘crippled’,’ poverty’, and ‘exile’ are spoken. The use of such emotive language is used to draw attention to their plight, and to attract sympathy so people might support their cause, which connects with the purpose of the speech.
He refers to the two different visions of experiences of black Americans – past slavery and future freedom. Describing the past slavery he uses negative language and in contrast to that, positive lexis is used to describe freedom, such as ‘majestic’, ‘invigorating’, and ‘hope’.
Again metaphoric language is used, but in a negative way
‘The life of the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination’
This reference to ‘manacles’ and ‘chains’ refers to the history of black slavery again captures the audience’s imagination and retains their interest. The range and power of images that Luther King creates using rhetorical language highlights the subjugation of Negroes – still suffering in the modern world. The manacles and chains are no longer visible, physical restraints, but part of a mindset
This sentence is very phonetically memorable because of the rhyme between ‘segregation’ and ‘discrimination’. This also helps the rhythm of the speech. The conjunction ‘and’ is also used here, to join two relevant pieces of information.
Martin Luther King uses sophisticated higher order lexis, such as ‘promissory’ and ‘gradualism’, to show he is educated and capable of speaking for this cause. If his audience think he is intelligent, they will listen to what he saying. A more homely vocabulary is used in some parts, which offers warmth and a feeling of friendliness. An example of this is ‘little black babies’.
Use of Patriotism
He also comes across as very patriotic, repeating the word ‘American’ throughout the speech, and describing the American constitution as ‘magnificent’. This shows togetherness with every person in America, regardless of colour. He does this to break barriers with other ethnic groups, and focuses on something they have in common, which is patriotism. This also gives the impression that as Martin Luther King respects America, he is not trying to change the ideals of the American way of life, but improve it. Ultimately he is asking for the Constitution to be adhered to in full, not in part.
He refers to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, quoting from the Constitution itself:
‘This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’.
Quoting the Constitution reminds all Americans that all men should be treated as equal, and this law was decided by delegates that all Americans should respect. He does this to persuade the audience that it is the right thing to do. Abraham Lincoln also quotes from the Declaration of Independence, stating that America should be dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal’
He adopts a conversational tone, ‘that all men, yes, black men as well…’ to confirm that the term ‘all men’ includes coloured people as well, as though some of the audience may not think that.
Alliteration is evident again here (“Life, Liberty”), which makes these two abstract nouns more memorable.
Luther King compares the rights of all men to money and likens the promise of equal rights to a cheque –
“America has given the Negro people a bad cheque…”
“…refuse to believe that the bank of justice is empty”.
This simplifies the situation so the audience can look at it from a different perspective. It is an interesting use of monetary analogy – the idea that black Americans have been sold short over a long period of time. This idea links back to a phrase uttered early in the speech - ‘promissory note’, which is another word for money.
Importance of the Location
Luther King also mentions the location where the demonstration is taking place, the Lincoln Memorial, which is a tribute to Abraham Lincoln and the nation he fought to protect in the Civil War. He chose this venue because of what it symbolises to all American people. It is described as a ‘hallowed spot’, again finding common ground with all Americans. The Gettysburg Address is actually transcribed on the walls of this memorial. By holding the demonstration here, it is associating Martin Luther King’s cause with Lincoln, who is someone all Americans hold in high esteem. The Lincoln Memorial is in Washington, which is the capital of the United States. Lincoln is also referred in the beginning of the speech:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation”.
‘Five score years ago’ is a biblical sounding expression that means a hundred years ago, as a score is equal to twenty. This refers to when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The expression is similar to the opening of the previously mentioned Gettysburg address, where Lincoln begins his speech with the now iconic phrase ‘Four score and seven years ago’. I believe that this is what King had in mind when he decided to use that phrase.
The Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential order that declared the freedom of all slaves. The alliterative phrase ‘symbolic shadow’ alludes to the fact that the speech was delivered under the imposing statue of Abraham Lincoln. Washington DC is also the modern capital of the United States so is a fitting place for King to speak.
Lincoln is linked to the issue of slavery because the Emancipation Proclamation was not a law passed by congress, but a presidential order empowered by Lincoln’s position as ‘Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy’, under Article II, section 2 of the United States Constitution. The law freed an estimated 4 million slaves, and effectively ended the American Civil War.
In a particular paragraph, King uses language to convey that change should happen immediately, not gradually. The main linguistic feature used is the urgent, emphatic use of the imperative ‘now’. ‘Now is the time’ state
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off, or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children”
Utterances such as ‘urgency’, and ‘no time’ also add to the sense of determinedness that Luther King creates. He uses a calmer lexis like ‘cooling’ and ‘tranquilizing’ to indicate the slow effect that taking no action will have.
Martin Luther King describes the discontent as “legitimate” which has semantic connotations of authenticity and legality. This explains to the audience that the Negroes should feel discontented, that is their right. This has the semantic meaning that black Americans are not getting the rights that they deserve, and should feel dissatisfied.
Luther King creates a sense of urgency in some parts of his speech, using phrases such as ‘There is no time’ and ‘fatal to overlook’. He begins five sentences with now, one after another. This adds drama and intensifies the act of speech. The reason for this is that he wants to motivate people in demonstrating for their cause, and is calling for action:
‘And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a small ghetto to a large one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro is Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote for. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
At the end of the paragraph, there is a quote directly from the bible (Amos 5:24)
“Let justice rolls down like waters,
righteousness like a mighty stream”
The language used is very descriptive and metaphoric, which accentuates the coming of justice. This also shows awareness of audience, as many of his followers were religious and could relate to quotations from the bible.
Throughout the speech, he uses biblical language. For example ‘Five score years ago’. This also is similar to the opening of Lincoln’s Speech. Lincoln also uses religious language, for example “…that this nation, under god, shall have….”
This segment of speech has a theme, shown in the repetition of ‘we cannot be satisfied’. By doing this, King is showing what he wants to be changed, and calling for action. He is also bringing to light the way Negroes were treated, and giving specific examples. This gives authenticity to the argument, as the audience can believe that the events he is describing have truly happened.
Simple, short sentences are evident in some parts of speech.
“We cannot walk alone.”
“We cannot turn back.”
The use of short sentences creates a sense of urgency and makes the phrases more memorable. The verb ‘cannot’ and the repetition in these sentences are reminiscent of Lincoln speech:
“…We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow…”
Martin Luther King mostly uses long, complex sentence structure. Another sentence structure that is used regularly is compound. The advantages of using this type is that it allows the speaker to build more detail and expand on the sentence already formed
Awareness of Audience
Martin Luther King shows awareness of his audience by recognising the Negroes who have personally experienced racism and persecution at the hands of the police.
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials of tribulations. Some of you have come fresh out of jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest – quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”
Martin Luther King is bringing to the light the subject of brutality in prisons, often a subject which people feel uncomfortable about. Kings forces people of all colours to face the issues, which is one of the reasons his speech was so influential.
A feature I have highlighted here is an example of a non-fluency utterance, which is often found in spoken language. It is an example of unpremeditated speech. King repeats the word ‘quest’, which is often a sign of nerves, and begins the sentence again. In this speech there are not many common features of casual spoken language as Luther King would have practiced and rehearsed his speech. Another form of stuttering, or a false start, is where King stutters over the word ‘victim’, “…the Negro is the vi, victim…”
King reassures his audience, telling them to ‘continue to work’, and return to their home towns. Similarly, Lincoln also sends out this message:
“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced”
Here, Lincoln is saying that the rest of America needed to fight against racism, by saying that they need to carry on fighting for what the soldiers who died fought for. This statement is also to honour the soldiers who died.
Interestingly, King also lists southern states, such as Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. This reinforces the fact that the biggest problem was in the south of the country. He tells them ‘somehow this situation can and will be changed’. This is very definite language, using verbs such as ‘can’ and ‘will’. This again reassures the audience, as they trust and respect him.
Change of Tone ‘I Have a Dream…’
At this point, the tone of his speech changes completely. The second half of the speech outlines the dream of a better, fairer future of racial integration and harmony, promoting a strong emotional response.
This part of speech begins with:
“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.”
Luther King groups himself with the audience, using the pronoun ‘us’. He also addresses them as ‘my friends, which promotes togetherness.
The next part of the speech is where the known phrase, ‘I have a dream’ stems from. He uses repetition to create structure and rhythm, and to engage his listeners. Repetition of the words ‘I have a dream’, and the examples he gives, get adrenalin flowing in his audience and prompt a strong emotional, rousing response.
The structure of this part of speech is that repeating the phrase ‘I have a dream.’ King states what his vision of a new America will be. He confirms that he respects and is proud of America by saying his dream is ‘deeply rooted in the American dream’.
First of all he states his dream is realising a quote from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
The quotation adds authenticity to his speech, the fact that it is not just Luther King visioning equality, but the respected and cherished men who signed the declaration.
The next part is:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”.
He uses the state of Georgia as an example, as that was a place where racism was evident. He imagines that Negroes and Whites are at peace. He expresses this using a metaphor that they will be together at the ‘table of brotherhood’
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”
Luther King describes the state of Mississippi as ‘sweltering with the heat of injustice…heat of oppression’. This references the fact that Mississippi has very high temperatures, and he is saying that the ‘heat’ of racism is like the actual ‘heat’ of the state. To me, this means that it is uncomfortable and unbearable. He dreams of Mississippi being an ‘oasis’, which has connotations of calm and peace. He also adds the abstract nouns ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”
This part of his dream is very personal, as he expresses his feelings about his own children, wanting them to live in a better world. This will be a part of the speech many fathers and mothers would relate to.
“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”
In this section of speech, Luther King is very emotional, you can feel his anger. He actually singles out the governor of Alabama, naming him as a racist. He uses very unflattering language to describe what the Governor has previously said…‘lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification”. Here he is mocking his words, and counteracts them with his dream.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
This part contains religious language, which gives a sense of drama and quotes from the bible (Isaiah 40:5). Interestingly, he seems to be saying that stopping racism is what God wants.
“This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with”
Here King is stating his hope should be shared by his audience, by using the personal pronoun ‘our’. Semantically this means that the hope belongs to himself, and the audience. ‘Hope’ and ‘faith’ are very positive lexis, and by using these 2 abstract nouns, King is giving his audience something to take home.
I thoroughly enjoyed analysing the speeches. I feel I have learnt a lot about the history behind the speakers.
It was also very linguistically interesting to see how language was used by the speakers to fight against racism, and to discover the features used to achieve this. It has helped me understand the use of language to persuade.
Both speeches now have an iconic nature, and after analysing them, I admire the speakers even more.
Some aspects of the speeches differ from what I was expecting. Although I expected Kings Speech to be emotional, it is made much more dramatic by the excessive use of imagery and rhetoric.
I thought that Lincoln’s speech would also be emotional, but he was much more understated than King. I believe this to be because of the time period it was spoken in. Also it was to mourn and commemorate the soldiers, so Lincoln might of felt it to be disrespectful to be too dramatic.
In King’s speech, I found some forms of relaxed language, which I wasn’t expecting. I can now see this made King more accessible and friendly.
Audio used to create transcript from: