In the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s speech announcing her resignation, many interpretations about its significance have been put forward. Some of this analysis rests upon distorted assumptions, however. James O’Sullivan explains why and looks at how we can identify what the speech was really about.
Earlier this week, Nicola Sturgeon formally announced her resignation as First Minister of Scotland. The first woman to hold the position, Sturgeon has been a Member of the Scottish Parliament since its establishment and first election in 1999. A fierce advocate for Scottish independence, women’s rights, and equality in education, she has been a major figure in Scottish politics for the best part of two decades.
Sturgeon often enjoyed considerable popularity among the Scottish electorate. But like any politician, she has also had her detractors. Considering her disdain for the Tories and anti-Brexit stance, it is easy to guess where on the political spectrum her most vocal opponents can be placed. But recent years have also seen divisions between Sturgeon and her own Scottish National Party. Most notably, her handling of sexual harassment claims made against her predecessor, former First Minister Alex Salmond, and her support for Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, are issues which will feature prominently in debates over her legacy. But whatever one’s view of Nicola Sturgeon’s nine-year term as leader of the Scottish government, it is simply untrue to state that her resignation speech was all about her.
Whatever one’s view of Nicola Sturgeon’s nine-year term as leader of the Scottish government, it is simply untrue to state that her resignation speech was all about her.
The Spectator, a politically conservative British magazine, posted the full text of Sturgeon’s resignation speech to their website. Having done so, they tweeted a link, remarking that the words “I”, “me” and “my” were used 153 times, while “Scotland was only mentioned 11 times”. On the surface, such figures seem to tell an obvious story, but all The Spectator has really done is demonstrate a complete lack of understanding about how the English language works (indeed, how most languages work).
Me, myself and I
Any kind of text – be it a political speech, personal correspondence or literature – will be made up of two types of word: function words and content words. Function words can be thought of as boring words. They are essential to the grammatical structure of sentences.
Examples of function words include “the”, “to”, “of” (so you see what I mean when I call them boring). Pronouns, including “I”, “me” and “my”, are also function words.
On the other hand, content words are about the subject matter of a text; they provide the semantic meaning. “Scotland” is a great example of a content word in that it will only appear in texts where the content has something to do with (as I’m sure you can guess) Scotland.
Here is the thing: in well-formed language, function words are always the most frequent words. Always. There are no exceptions to this rule. We know this because of “Zipf’s law”, which basically tells us that high frequency words in a text are always significantly more frequent than all other words. Thus, we can know with certainty that in every political speech ever written, the function words are far more frequent than the content words, because that’s just how language works. This is a linguistic and statistical fact.
Analysing Sturgeon’s speech
It is true there are instances where the frequency of pronouns can tell us something about a text. James W. Pennebaker, a psychologist and linguist, has written a whole book on the matter. Pennebaker has also contributed to studies which demonstrate men and women use language differently, including that women use pronouns more. Pennebaker argues that this comes down to women being more self-aware and more comfortable speaking about people and relationships. His work provides further linguistic evidence that Sturgeon’s use of pronouns is pretty ordinary.
Deborah Cameron contends in The Myth of Mars and Venus that any linguistic differences that may exist between men and women are largely a social consequence of gender disparities. Female politicians may well use more assertive and self-identifying language than male politicians because they are treated quite differently, particularly by the media. They have to speak up for themselves because no one else will.
If The Spectator wanted to prove Sturgeon was making her speech all about herself (and to be fair, the speech was about her own resignation), they should have calculated usage ratios for relevant words by dividing the number of such words by the total number of all words in the speech. That would have allowed them to compare her resignation speech with other politicians.
To help them get started, I did just that. The words “I”, “me” and “my” comprise 5 per cent of Sturgeon’s speech. The same words in the speech Liz Truss gave to mark the end of her 49 days as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom made up 4 per cent of her text, while the count comes to 3 per cent for Boris Johnson’s resignation speech. Nicola Sturgeon refers directly to herself a whopping 1-2 per cent more often than her counterparts in Westminster.
As you can see, this kind of analysis produces little, if any, insight. If you don’t remove the function words from a dataset like this, you’re usually not going to get anything interesting. In Sturgeon’s speech, the most frequent words are “the”, “to”, “I”, “and”, “of” and “that”. The most frequent words in Liz Truss’s resignation address were “the”, “I”, “and” and “to”. Pointing out, as The Spectator did, that Sturgeon’s speech contained more function words than content words is akin to saying Celtic and Rangers win the most games in the Scottish Premiership. It is stating the obvious. Celtic and Rangers always win the most games, and function words are always the most frequent.
The speech was about people and independence
If someone did want to analyse the contents of Sturgeon’s speech in quantitative terms, a good starting point would be removing the function words. Counting all the pronouns in Sturgeon’s speech and comparing the total to the number of times the word “Scotland” appears, well that is the kind of thing that receives a failing grade in any undergraduate course on language or linguistics.
When we do remove the function words from Sturgeon’s speech, we are left with a clearer picture of what she focused upon. Her most frequent content words are “country”, “people”, “party”, “Scotland” and “independence”. For Truss, the three most frequent words were “party”, “economic” and “conservative”. For Johnson, they are “people”, “government” and “country”.
Quantitatively, Sturgeon’s speech was about Scotland, its people and their independence.
What this tells us is that political resignations are about “people” and “country”, or in the case of Liz Truss, the “economy” (for obvious reasons). One shouldn’t need to count words to figure this stuff out. There is nothing unexpected in any of this content and nothing self-obsessed about Nicola Sturgeon’s choice of words. Quantitatively, Sturgeon’s speech was about Scotland, its people and their independence.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Image credit: Photo by First Minister of Scotland, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)