In the run-up to the UK election, we’ve heard an awful lot from the leaders of the rival political parties. You might have noticed that politicians like to return to the same concepts over and over again. This is particularly true when it comes to the economy. Words such as “austerity”, “debt” and “deficit” have defined the central debates of this election.
In the seven-way ITV leaders’ debate on April 2, the word “austerity” was said a lot – the equivalent of 1,030 times per million words. “Debt” was said 1,254 times per million words, and “deficit” an incredible 1,567 times per million words. This might not mean much to you, so let’s put this into perspective. Normally, we’d expect very frequent words such as “these” or “your” to occur this much.
But words like “deficit” aren’t normally used at all in everyday conversation, let alone with these high frequencies. There’s a considerable language gap between the way that politicians speak to the public and how people in the UK speak in everyday situations. Our current research on spoken British English, the Spoken British National Corpus 2014, shows this.
From data we’ve collected over the past year from thousands of people, we’ve been able to see how people actually speak day to day. In our project, which is ongoing, participants use the recording device in their smartphones to record conversations with their friends and families.
So far in this large national sample of informal chit-chat, the word “debt” is found 13 times per million words. “Deficit” is said only three times per million words, and “austerity” only once in five million words. The word “austerity” just doesn’t figure in everyday conversation.
We also don’t often read or write it. In 1.1 billion words of contemporary written UK English, we find “austerity” only 0.63 times per million words. Because we hardly ever encounter this word, the likelihood of many people knowing its meaning isn’t high. This probably explains why, during the debate, the most frequent question asked of Google was: “What is austerity?”.
Unsurprisingly, we don’t talk about issues such as economics in the ways that the politicians do. The word “cake” occurs 50 times as much as “deficit”. Our everyday conversations are dominated by far more mundane matters (or perhaps for some, more important).
In fact, while this may surprise some political commentators, people don’t appear to talk about politics much at all. The name “David Cameron” can be found only six times per million words of British conversation. “Ed Miliband” appears only twice per million, and “Nick Clegg” only once per million.
It’s clear that politicians have their own “register” – a way of speaking that sets them apart and places them within a particular social group – that of “politician”. To acquire this way of speaking they start using words which are very uncommon in normal everyday language, and so demonstrate their membership of this group.
But this strategy has a significant cost – the potential for being misunderstood by those who they are appealing to – voters. So when talking to voters, politicians may want to consider using alternatives that voters encounter more frequently and would therefore more readily understand.
In the ITV debate, Nigel Farage said the word “brownfield” three times. This word does not occur even once in five million words of British conversation. So he might consider replacing it with “former industrial site”. This phrase is more likely to be understood immediately by more people – “industrial” occurs at least seven times per million in our spoken data and 68.19 times per million in our 1.1 billion word written data collection.
Meanwhile, David Cameron might want to drop “bureaucrats” from his arsenal. He said it four times in the ITV debate, but this also fails to occur in our sample of everyday British speech. And it only occurs 1.71 times per million in our written material.
And what about “austerity”? The politicians who said the word most in the ITV debate were Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood (nine times each), followed by Natalie Bennett (five times). Considering how little it’s used in day-to-day conversation and writing, it might be time to find another way to talk about not spending money.
The battle for parties to distinguish themselves from each other continues. As this goes on, one thing is clear: there is a real deficit in language between how politicians speak and how the nation speaks. If politicians want to communicate effectively with voters, then maybe they should pay more attention to the way the voters communicate themselves.