Inaugural Rhetoric

Political rhetoric is one of the oldest kinds around, and presidential rhetoric has received plenty of attention itself, but semantic analysis tools are adding some new possibilities for how we study and visualize this material.  Within minutes of President Obama’s inaugural speech text being posted online, it had been run through a term-cloud generator called Wordle that produces a cloud of words, those more frequently used being bigger. That cloud was compared to the cloud produced by Bush’s inaugural address, and after numerous requests, other inaugural addresses were added as well.  You can see them all here.

The difference in the most prominent terms is striking, especially when you look at similar terms that have different flavors.  For example, Obama and Clinton and Reagan talked about the “nation”, while Bush used the word “country” instead.  Lincoln didn’t use either term; he talked about the “states” and the “union.”  Analysing those differences would make an interesting article right there…

In any case, a tool like this means that work that would have taken months at least, can be carried out in a matter of minutes on a much larger scale, allowing us to see patterns in the way these rhetors and presumably their audiences think about various concepts, and how that has changed over time.  This is someting we simply could not have done before.  And if you consider the massive data-crunching we can now carry out, we could conceivable feed in the texts, for example of the big national newspapers for as far back as digital texts are available to look for patterns of discussion around issues.  –Making clearer the value of digitizing older text.  If we digitized texts going way back, we could really see changes in how we think about and discuss various issues over time.

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