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Language in Context

Written By: Youki on January 10, 2009 3 Comments

Usree Bhattacharya recently wrote about a BBC article that graphed the frequency of words in President Bush’s last eight State of the Union addresses.   One of the things I noticed was a high frequency of the words “child”/”children” in his 2004 SOTU address.  “Children” being a rather ubiquitous word, I thought I’d look a bit closer into the context of each instance of the word in his speech.  Is he really focusing on children?  Or is he using children to push other agendas?

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Following is each sentence in which the word “child” or “children” occurs.  I also tagged each sentence with a (highly unscientific) category:

1. The killing fields of Iraq — where hundreds of thousands of men and women and children vanished into the sands — would still be known only to the killers. (child-war)

2. You have doubled the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000.  (child-tax)

3-6. All skills begin with the basics of reading and math, which are supposed to be learned in the early grades of our schools. Yet for too long, for too many children, those skills were never mastered. By passing the No Child Left Behind Act, you have made the expectation of literacy the law of our country. We’re providing more funding for our schools — a 36-percent increase since 2001. We’re requiring higher standards. We are regularly testing every child on the fundamentals. We are reporting results to parents, and making sure they have better options when schools are not performing. We are making progress toward excellence for every child in America. (child-school)

7. Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability. (child-school)

8-11. This nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics. I refuse to give up on any child — and the No Child Left Behind Act is opening the door of opportunity to all of America’s children. (child-school)

12. Unless you act, millions of families will be charged $300 more in federal taxes for every child. (child-tax)

13-14. The values we try to live by never change. And they are instilled in us by fundamental institutions, such as families and schools and religious congregations. These institutions, these unseen pillars of civilization, must remain strong in America, and we will defend them. We must stand with our families to help them raise healthy, responsible children.  When it comes to helping children make right choices, there is work for all of us to do. (child-moral education)

15. One of the worst decisions our children can make is to gamble their lives and futures on drugs.  (child-moral education)

16-17. So tonight I proposed an additional $23 million for schools that want to use drug testing as a tool to save children’s lives. The aim here is not to punish children, but to send them this message: We love you, and we don’t want to lose you.  (child-moral education)

18. To help children make right choices, they need good examples. Athletics play such an important role in our society, but, unfortunately, some in professional sports are not setting much of an example.  (child-moral education)

19-20. Decisions children now make can affect their health and character for the rest of their lives. All of us — parents and schools and government — must work together to counter the negative influence of the culture, and to send the right messages to our children.  (child-moral education)

21. It’s also important to strengthen our communities by unleashing the compassion of America’s religious institutions. Religious charities of every creed are doing some of the most vital work in our country — mentoring children, feeding the hungry, taking the hand of the lonely. Yet government has often denied social service grants and contracts to these groups, just because they have a cross or a Star of David or a crescent on the wall. By executive order, I have opened billions of dollars in grant money to competition that includes faith-based charities.  (child-moral education)

22. In the past, we’ve worked together to bring mentors to children of prisoners, and provide treatment for the addicted, and help for the homeless. Tonight I ask you to consider another group of Americans in need of help. This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society.  (child-prisoners)

ok I double-checked, and I only see 22 instances of child/children, but the graph says 27, so there’s a discrepancy. [link to 2004 SOTU Address]

Frequency in category:

child-war: 1
child-tax: 2
child-school: 9
child-moral education: 9
child-prisoners: 1

A closer look reveals an agenda that isn’t represented in the graph: President Bush is also concerned with forms of moral education through “fundamental institutions”: families, schools and religious congregations.  While a frequency analysis may yield a useful overview of “what the president saw as the pressing issues at the beginning of each year,” a deeper analysis is necessary to understand emergent patterns that reach beyond the text, the myths and ideologies of language, the overarching metastructures of language.  It’s a linguistic bait-and-switch: draw the crowd in with something people can hardly disapprove of, and use it to sell something else.

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3 Responses to “Language in Context”

  1. daveski on: 12 January 2009 at 9:22 am

    This reminds me of the whole “stay the course” flap a few years ago. It’s amazing what a corpus of language will do…

  2. Youki on: 12 January 2009 at 10:06 am

    small excerpt from nyt on Bush’s final news conference:

    He mentioned the “Mission Accomplished” banner displayed on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln where he spoke, prematurely as it turned out, when the Iraq war seemed won. “It sent the wrong message,” he said. “Obviously some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.”

    Does myth trump narrative? Not all the time, thankfully!

  3. Usree Bhattacharya on: 12 January 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Facsinating analysis, Youki!

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