Language and Power


Types of Power

INSTRUMENTAL POWER - the power to actually do something to someone or make them do something - eg law, education, medicene. 

INFLUENTIAL POWER - the power to persuade and influence - eg politics, media and advertising.

POLITICAL POWER - power held by those with the backing of the law. - eg police, obama, judges

PERSONAL POWER - power held by individuals as a result of their roles in organisations  EG parents

SOCIAL GROUP POWER - power held as a result of being a member of a dominant social group. - eg royal family, chavs, ect

IDEOLOGY - a set of belief systems, attitudes or a world view held by an individual/group

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Key terms

Power asymmetry - a marked difference in the power status of individuals involved in the discourse. eg a celeb/normal person, a parent/child, a teacher/student 

Unequal encounter - an alternative term for asymmetrical, highlighting the power one speaker has over another 

Powerful participent - a speaker with a higher status in a given contect, who is therefore able to impose a degree of power eg - obama, teachers, queen, police 

Less powerful participent - those with less status in a given context, who are subject to constraints imposed by more powerful participents

Constraints - ways in which powerful participants may block or control the contributions of less powerful participents. such as interupting, negi feed back, changing the topic

Face - a person's self esteem or emotional needs

Face threatening act - a communicative act that threatens someone's face needs

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Key terms

Repressive discourse strategy  - a more indirect way of exercising power and control through conversational constraints 

Opressive discourse strategy - linguistic behaviour that is open in its exercising of power and control

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Power in conversation


  • Start the conversation
  • dominate in terms of amount said
  • control the topics of the conversation
  • reinforce the required behaviour in the listener by such approving phrases as 'good'
  • open a new topic by using discourse markers
  • use a more prestige form of language
  • achieve authoritave distance by use of RP, standard english, jargon
  • discourage questioning
  • inturrupt
  • overlap what others say in a way that indicates a take over
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Power in conversation


  • respond rather than initiate
  • say much less, maybe even largely silent
  • take on the role of 'attentive listener' by body lang (smiling, nodding, eye contact) and by minimal supporting responses such as ''mm'' 'uh uh'' 'yeah'' which are well placed at clause ends
  • follow the set agenda of the conversation
  • anticipate what is about to be said and join in to show your concurrence and attentiveness
  • move towards the dominant speaker by modying own speach to fit in and by copying words and phrases used by the cominant party (convergence)
  • use formal respectful form of address, avoid familarity
  • avoid assertiveness by not interupting and by using tag questions
  •  use hedges ' sort of ' 'kind of '
  • super polite forms - 'i'd really appreciate if....''
  • emphatic - 'so ' and 'very'
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Power in conversation


  • use empty adjectives 'pretty' 'lovely' sweet'
  • hypercorrect grammar and pronunciateion
  • question intonation when giving directives (to get rid of assertiveness.
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Political Power

Purpose of political power is to persuade to achieve this, politions use RHETORIC DEVICES. ( the art of using language persuasively)




4) FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE - (eg- ''the winter of discontent has become a summer of prosperity)


6) HYPERBOLE (exaggeration)

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Legal Language

Legal language is distinctive - it has its own lexis. The specific vocab used by an OCCUPATIONAL GROUP is known as JARGON 

Syntax is often complex with lots of subordinate clauses and is REPETITIVE

as it is complex, knowledge of this language gives specialists an advantage over non-specialists , then have to trust theat their lawyers understand it and deal with their case properly 

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Power and education

Language of power is seen in education. The language of education reflects power structures in schools.

teachers use imperatives

students use fewer imperatives and ask more INDIRECT QUESTIONS

ofen an inballence in address terms - students use respectful adress terms to the teacher such as sir or title and surname constuctions ( mr smith) whereas teachers just use the students first name - this shows that the teacher has authority 

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power in business

Power structures in the language of business are very similar to those in education 

managers may speak more directly to their employers while employees may use politeness strategies and fewer imperatives

the hierchal structure of many businesses is shown in nouns such as subordinate, superior, team leaer and cheif executive.

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address terms showing power relationships

What people call eachother can reveal power relaitionships

  • POLITICS: madam/ mr speaker / honourable speaker
  • LAW: Your honour / ladies and gentleman of the jury
  • EDUCATION: sir / miss /mr / mrs / DR / Professor 
  • BUSINESS: maddam / sir 

imballences in adress terms can reveal unequal power relationships

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Exerting power in a CONVERSATION

Power relationships are shown in the way people talk to eachother, people assert power in different ways. ( BEING THE DOMINANT PARTICIPANT OR ATTEMPTING TO BE IT WILL DO THE FOLLOWING:

  • Initiating a convo - 'taking the lead' and establishing the topic of the convo
  • holding the floor - when one speaker gives little or no oppourtunity for other speakers to take a turn. ususally convos involve turn taking, so a speaker can show domminance by not letting anyone else in.
  • imperative sentences - giving orders and directions can be a sign of power eg - shut the door
  • unresponsiveness - a negative way of asserting control. if a person speaking is ignored or if the back channel noises (mm or uh uh ) of the other participents are half hearted or hesitant - the status of the speaker is undermined 
  • questioning - questions direct to the topic of conversation and make it clear when the other peron is expected to talk
  • topic changing - or reasserting control - diverting attention to a different topic when politicians get asked an unconfortable question
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context and power

in a particular situation the way power hows itself depends on how people are 'positions' in relation to eachother

these relationships between speakers can shape the conversational strategies and type of language they use eg youd expet a doctor to ask the patient alot of questions

depending on the context of the convo, some of the above examples of dominance can be interpreted as ways of showing support - eg - interrupting with words like yes or cutting into repat what the speaker has said can show that you agree and that you're listening.doesn't always mean you are attempting to assert power

asking questions can be a sign of you want to control the topic of the convo OR it maybe a way of passing control to someone else - to encourage them to hold the floor

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Power shows itself in different ways

Non Verbal communication (NVC) - using posture, positioning, gestures, eyecontact and facial expressions to convey feelings and attitudes - eg crossing your legs away from someone can funtion as a barrier and appear deffensive. maintaining eye contact longer than normal can be an attempt to assert domminance. Smiling at someone and pausing as you walk past them can be a way of starting a convo

Non verbal aspects of speach (pitch, intonation, volume, pace, stress) can also be used to assert control eg when people argue they try and dominate by shouting, ect

Standard English and Recieved Pronounciation (RP) are the varieties of English that carry the most prestige. associated with proffestional jobs and good education, because of this speakers who use SE and RP are often pervived to have more authority and status than people who don't speak in SE or RP

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Jargon can be used to dominate. It is the specialist vocabulary used in particular fields/activity. Especially occupations. TERMS THAT AREN'T GENERALLY UNDERSTOOD BY 'NON SPECIALISTS'

Jargon is often necessary when specialists are talking to other specialists - its a precise form of labelling objects, processes, conditions so it means TECHNICAL INFORMATION can be communicated QUICKLY.

People who understand jargon have a sense of INCLUSION in the group which often brings a higher status

problem with jargon is when specialists use it to communicate with non specialists... it can become a barrier to understanding eg doctors with patients - mechanics with car owners

non specialists can see intimidated by specialists are excluded from the high status group in cases like this, the specialists have more power and can dominate the situation

specaislists can exploit this by using jargon with non specialists in order to IMPRESS them - makes them feel they want to be part of a high status group that uses specialist terms.

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Alternatives to Jargon

Jargon can cause problems when it is use inapropriately, so measures are taken to avoid it, such as:

some language used in civil courts has been changed to make it easier for non specialists to understand.

such as latin terms.

using plainer language promotes equality as it means that everyone has a more chance of understandin what is being said and specialists cant use jargon to intimidate non specialists.

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Language and the media

Media holds power.... language of the media can have a large influence on peoples attitudes and values.

BIAS - tendancy to take sides and view things subjectively

PREJUDICE -  a preconcieved opinion of a person / group  that isn't based on experiance / reason. media can create and reinforce these negi opinions so the audience can begin to associate with them.


Media can also affect an audiences' point of view. by sensationalising stories (making a big deal out of them) being selective with quotes of information or using ambiguous language

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Most persuasive form of media, aims to attract an audience to a product, service ect by -

Selling - advert sellers use different approaches to do this eg beautiful women with expensive things

form - written adverts come in different forms eg - newspapers and mags, can be in the appeal of letters than come through your doors and internet (SPAM)

target audience 

the hook is the device advertisers use to get the auiences attention - could be verbal, visual,musical

THEY MANIPULATE LANGUAGE by using: comparative and superlative adjectives and high tech jargon, GRAMMAR - imperatives without subjects, disjunctive sentences to make concise comparisons PHONOLOGY - alliteration onomatopoia ect, GRAPHOLOGY - images, colour ect. DISCOURSE STRUCTURE - the hook,. USING PUNS!!! and intertextuality

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