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Review of  Voice in Political Discourse

Reviewer: Xavier Martin-Rubio
Book Title: Voice in Political Discourse
Book Author: Antonio Reyes
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 25.2186

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“Voice in Political Discourse” contains 7 chapters. Chapter 1 is the introduction, and it contains, among other elements, the research questions and the contextualization of the study. The two research questions that motivated the study are: 1) what are the linguistic mechanisms employed by politicians to achieve certain political goals? and 2) how are political ideologies constructed, shaped and reshaped by semiotic resources? In terms of contextualization, the study analyses presidential speeches delivered by George W. Bush (all in English), and by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez (in Spanish) in the context of the ‘war on terror’, the Iraq War, and all the derived controversies which the two Latin-American leaders used to undermine the world’s hegemonic power: the USA. These controversial issues include the suitability of the methods employed in the war, the non-existence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the debate around the ulterior motives the US administration had to go to war in the first place.

Chapter 2 is entitled “Language and Politics,” and describes the chosen theoretical and analytical frameworks. Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is the main theoretical framework and the works of the main authors using this framework are reviewed. As for the analytical tools, the author adopts a combination of Systemic Functional Grammar (FG) for the linguistic analysis, and a version of the model developed by Koven (2002, 2007) combined with concepts like ‘footing’ (Goffman, 1981), ‘voice’ (Bakhtin, 1984), ‘indexicality’ (Hanks, 2000) and ‘style’ (Coupland, 2007). Koven’s model is essential in this work and in fact shapes the entire book. Koven “develops a tripartite set of role distinctions: author or narrator, character, and interlocutor” (p. 22), which she uses to analyze self narratives. Reyes keeps the same labels but adapts them to the analysis of political speeches. These three labels are used as the titles for Chapters 3, 4 and 5, i.e. the bulk of the book. Chapter 2 also contains an exhaustive list of the linguistic features that activate the different roles, together with some analytical samples. The chapter closes with a description of the data selection: speeches by George W. Bush delivered in 2003; and speeches by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez from 2005, accounting for about 125,000 words per president. They are all presidential speeches that are publicly available online.

Chapter 3 covers the first of the three roles, the narrator’s role. This is a role the three presidents use a great deal, basically to create the impression that what they are telling the audience is an irrefutable truth, pure fact. However, they (or those writing their speeches) have carefully worked out the information provided. They do this linguistically by avoiding hedges or modal qualifiers, first-person deictics and conjugations (in the case of Spanish), questions, vocatives, or moments of laughter. Although the three presidents use this role, they have different styles. Castro, for instance, adopts a journalistic style and provides a lot of detailed information (figures, specific times and dates), thus coming across as a knowledgeable, well-informed, competent politician. Chávez turns to historical figures instead of newspapers. He refers to figures like Christ, Don Quixote and Simón Bolívar and he does so in two different roles. In the narrator’s role he claims, for example, that Christ was also a martyr for America because he fought for equality, freedom, and justice. He does this using the same linguistic devices described above. However, he also quotes from them, thus recontextualising their message, something that falls within the character’s role. Bush has no particular style but the linguistic mechanisms used to distance himself from the information being provided are the same.

Chapter 4 is concerned with the interlocutor’s role. In this role, politicians simulate face-to-face, casual conversations in order to convey a sense of solidarity with the audience. They resort to questions, referential indexicals, markers of modalization, vocatives, laughter, or exclamations. The politician states a question, and after a brief pause, provides the answer. The question was never meant to be answered. It was there to make the audience think they are being asked; that they matter. The words and messages used can also be structured in this vein: when Chávez claims he does not feel like a President because in fact he is just fulfilling a role, and then goes on to list roles like solider or peasant, this is all a calculated strategy to create a sense of solidarity with his audience.

The character’s role is tackled in Chapter 5, and here we find the different styles identified for the narrator’s role once again. Castro quotes from newspapers a great deal, and he does this to reinforce or validate what he claims from the narrator’s role. Chávez quotes from historical figures like Simón Bolívar and recontextualises their messages. Although Bolívar was fighting the Spanish, Chávez argues that his fight with the hegemonic American power is in fact the same struggle, and uses the words Bolívar uttered decades ago to reinforce the message. Bush also quotes from historical figures like Kennedy, but he mostly quotes from ordinary citizens. It can be “a woman in Arkansas”, or “a doctor in rural South Africa”, but it is always anonymous people with concerns or problems that he, the President, is there to attend to. There are also cases when the interlocutor and character roles are blended in what Bakhtin (1984) called double voicing. This is when a dialogue is quoted, and thus, although it technically falls within the character’s role, it displays the characteristics of the interlocutor’s role, since it is a dialogue.

In Chapter 6, the author uses excerpts taken randomly from the data to show how the three roles interact and how the different discursive strategies activated in these roles are combined and interwoven in the speeches. The chapter also includes a statistical analysis of the data. The author uses the first speech of each politician to carry out this quantification. The first analyzed element is the number of switches from one role to another, and the results show that the narrator and interlocutor roles are the ones with the greatest number of switches (accounting for more than 90% of the switches in all cases), and that these two are quite evenly distributed. However, when the number of words delivered under each specific role is counted, a different picture emerges: the narrator role represents around 75% in the speeches by Castro and Chávez, whereas it only accounts for a bit over 50% in those by Bush, which means the interlocutor’s role gets around 20% with Castro and Chávez, and almost 50% with Bush. Again, the character’s role accounts for a very small proportion of the speeches. In other words, Castro and Chávez switch more often to the interlocutor’s role, but for shorter contributions, whereas Bush switches less to this role but uses it for longer contributions, mostly at the beginning of speeches.

The three pages of Chapter 7, entitled “Concluding Remarks,” is mostly a list of positive and innovative aspects of the book, which shall be listed below. The last paragraph provides a series of questions which the study has answered: What are common voices that politicians evoke in their speeches? Do those voices correlate with linguistic choices? How often do politicians switch roles in their discourses? What political and social goals are achieved with those shifts (moves)?


This book is innovative in at least three ways. First, the author has innovated by successfully applying a model devised for the analysis of personal narratives to the analysis of political discourse. Second, he has successfully combined different analytical tools and frameworks, even adding a small quantitative study to complement the qualitative work at the end of Chapter 6. And third, the author has innovated by analyzing presidential speeches delivered in English and in Spanish.

The book is also solid and coherent. In Chapter 6 the reader can see how the three roles used for the analyses are combined to do several things at the same time: to give the impression that facts (and not opinions) are being expressed; to reinforce the weight of these “facts” by using quotes from newspapers, historical figures, or people like you and me; but also to create solidarity and a false sense of equality between the person delivering the speech and those listening to it.

For these reasons, this book is essential for scholars interested in the intersection of politics and linguistics. It is also one more example of scholars who are not satisfied with cold analytical descriptions and want to bring the analyst’s subjectivity into the analysis. This is what gives CDA its distinctive accent. Politicians use strategies to manipulate people, and the critical discourse analyst provides elements that help people become aware of the ways in which they are being manipulated.

There is an aspect that I would have presented differently and which, in my understanding, would have made the book more direct and effective. If we compare the two research questions from the introductory chapter and the last few questions in Chapter 7, we see that, although they are ultimately referring to the same issues, they use different labels. There are basically two sides to it: the ideologies, voices, goals or discourses of politicians; and the semiotic resources, linguistic mechanisms, or linguistic choices (including the shifting or moving from one role to another). And these two sides are bidirectionally connected: politicians use these mechanisms, but their ideologies and discourses are (re)shaped and constructed by these very same choices. Although the author follows the tenets of CDA and looks for the right tools to analyze the data, it is my impression that there is no need for such a great diversity of labels, since it simply makes things more complex than they need be. Moreover, these different labels (concepts from different authors) are explained on several occasions throughout the book. The same occurs with the list of linguistic mechanisms employed in each role, which are listed repeatedly. The overall effect is that the message, which is very simple and powerful precisely because of its simplicity, is repeated too often and made a bit more complex than necessary.

To sum up, this book is the result of sound and innovative research presented in a coherent, if maybe repetitive, fashion, which is bound to open new research paths within the disciplines of linguistics and politics. The adaptation of Koven’s model has proven successful, and after all, speeches in only two languages have been analyzed. Happily for us, there is much work yet to do.


Bakhtin, M.M. 1984. Problem of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, edited and translated by C. Emerson. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Coupland, N. 2007. Style: Language Variation and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, E. 1981. ‘Footing’. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hanks, W.F. 2000. Indexicality. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9 (1-2). 124-126.

Koven, M. 2002. An analysis of speaker role inhabitance in narratives of personal experience. Journal of Pragmatics 34. 167-217.

Koven, M. 2007. Selves in Two Languages: Bilinguals’ Verbal Enactments of Identity in French and Portuguese. Amsterdam, Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
I hold a doctoral degree from Universitat de Lleida, in Catalonia. My PhD looked into the way language use/learning and (language) ideologies shaped one another in two mid-size cities (one in Catalonia and one is Eusakdi). I have also been teaching English across different educational levels. I am about to start a new research project on European identity and the use of English as a Lingua Franca in Europe.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780567003584
Pages: 208
Prices: U.K. £ 24.99