Linguistic Study - Linguistic Analysis of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream', and Abraham Lincoln's 'Gettysberg Address'

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Linguistic analysis of Martin Luther King’s

‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and Abraham Lincoln’s

‘Gettysburg Address’

I have chosen to investigate the use of linguistic devices and how they are used to persuade the audience. I will study a spoken form of language, as I think the spoken mode illustrates emotion better than a written mode.

The speech I have chosen to study was spoken by Martin Luther King in 1963, and has been given the popular name of ‘I Have a Dream’. I will also look at the Gettysburg address, spoken by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, as this links in closely with Martin Luther King’s ideals, and is referred to in his speech.

Martin Luther Kings ‘I Have A Dream’ speech is a very moving and interesting speech as it symbolises Freedom of Speech. It is rousing, motivational and filled with emotion. The aim of my investigation is to see how Martin Luther King uses language to create a speech of this nature that will persuade the audience to support the Civil Rights movement in America. It has become almost an defining moment for the cause.

Alongside King’s speech, I have also chosen study the similarities between King’s speech and Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’, as Martin Luther Kings refers to this in his speech, and are related as both aim to promote peace and equality.  As this is much shorter speech, I will be looking at it in less depth.

I have chosen to look at King’s speech because it is an example of how the power of speech can instigate such powerful emotions and cause monumental changes. I am interested in how this was achieved using linguistic features in this speech. The Gettysburg Address is also a very important speech, and the speaker, Lincoln, is admired by many.  I will keep an open mind while studying these speeches, and won’t be biased about either of the speakers.

I am particularly interested in Martin Luther King’s speech as I respect what he achieved for equal rights. It is also a subject I feel strongly about, and would like to learn more about Luther King.

 During the 1950’s in America, equal rights for all people, envisioned by the Declaration of Independence, was not progressing. Negroes, Hispanics and Orientals, were discriminated against in many ways. The 1950's were a tempestuous time in America, when racial barriers were began to fall due to Supreme Court decisions. The animation of activists, fighting for equal rights, also contributed.

Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, was a driving force in the campaign for racial equality in the 1950's and the 1960's.

King organized a massive march on Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he evoked the name of Lincoln in his "I Have a Dream" speech, which has been credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation and prompted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The next year, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Abraham Lincoln was invited to participate in the opening ceremony of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, to speak a few appropriate remarks. His speech was actually secondary to other events that day. The Soldier’s National Cemetery was where the soldiers who had died in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. As a supporter of equal rights, he introduced measures that resulted in the eradication of slavery, signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1963. Lincoln is remembered as a great leader of the United States, and was victorious in the American Civil War. He is also remembered for his powerful and motivational speeches, of which the Gettysburg Address is most well-known. Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

To obtain my data, I used the internet to get the original text for each speech.

The exact wording of the Gettysburg Address is questionable, as the five known manuscripts differ in some small detail, and the scripts written by Lincoln also differ slightly.

The version I have chosen to use is known as the ‘Bliss’ version. It was written by Lincoln after the speech, and is viewed by many as the standard text. It is the only known version that Lincoln has signed. For these reasons, I will study this text.  

To create transcripts of King’s speech I will listen to audio of his speech, and then write the transcript myself. I think this will be useful, as it will allow me to study the phonological aspects of his speech. By listening to it, I think I will also understand his purpose better.  I will also watch a video of the speech, as that will allow me to view paralinguistic features of the speech. I plan to do this because I think paralinguistic features will be used by King to convey his emotion, and that is important as it one of the key reasons why his speech was so influential.

Unfortunately, there is no audio or video of the Gettysburg Address, as it was delivered in 1863 before the technology was invented. Therefore I will just be studying the text and will not be able to compare phonological or paralinguistic features between the speeches.

I will be focusing on linguistic devices that I expect to find in speeches of this context. These include:

  • Metaphoric Language/metaphors
  • Rhetoric
  • Similes
  • Ellison
  • Ellipses
  • Superlatives/comparatives
  • Conjunctions
  • Personal pronouns
  • Facts and Figures
  • Lexical and semantic fields
  • Uses of different lexis
  • Different tones
  • Awareness of audience

I am expecting to find features that dramatises the speech, and are emphatic.

As I will only be able to make transcripts of King’s speech, I will also be able to study these phonological and paralinguistic features in his speech:

  • Rhythm of speech
  • Rhyme
  • Stress on certain words
  • Facial expressions
  • Accents
  • Alliteration
  • Repetition
  • Body/hand movement

The feature I expect to see most of is rhetoric and imagery

I will also be analysing the lexis used by the speakers. Because of the nature of King’s speech, I expect to find very emotive language, as this helps to create feeling in the audience. Racism is also a subject that King will have strong opinions about, so it is only natural that he uses this kind of language. I think Lincolns will be similar, and I may find use of archaic language.

I expect to find sophisticated language is both speeches, and very little, if any, colloquiums or slang.

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Linguistic analysis of Martin Luther King’s

‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and Abraham Lincoln’s

‘Gettysburg Address’

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 ...

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