Language

In his Selma Speech, Barack Obama uses language that is made memorable through a range of rhetorical devices and forms of appeal, which we will discuss her…

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Choice of words

The choice of words reflects a formal, emphatic style: “As is true across the landscape of American history”. This is combined with occasional examples of informal language: “Young folks” , “scribbled down”. 

The speaker often chooses powerful words related to America’s past, present, and future. He creates a contrast between negative words, which describe America’s troubled past (mainly related to racism, slavery, segregation, and violence against African-Americans) and positive words which describe America’s progress, the current state of American society, and its future.

A few relevant examples of negative words and phrases are: “doubt, anticipation and fear” ; “turbulent history” ; “stain of slavery” ; “tyranny” ; “gush of blood and splintered bone” , “brutal violence”. Some phrases with positive associations are: “courage of ordinary Americans” ; “keep marching toward justice” ; “anthems full of faith and hope” ; “love and hope can conquer hate”.

Use of pronouns

T…

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Sentence structure

Obama alternates between long and short sentences in his speech. The long sentences are used to express more complex ideas in detail. For example, he uses long sentences to describe how the Selma march was a culmination of America’s conflict-filled history , to enumerate memorable characters in American history , and to speak about patriotism.

The short…

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Tone

Barack Obama’s overall tone when he delivers the speech is serious and determined. He supports his most important ideas using frequent hand gestures, such as pointing with his index finger or making a broad, open gesture with his hand to emphasize that the fight for civil rights spans across generations.

The speaker also raises his voice when he wants to highlight certain ideas, for example when he quotes the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and adds: “These are not just words. They are a living thing, a call to action, a roadmap for citizenship and an insistence in the capacity of free men and women to shape …

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Personal stories and anecdotes

At the start of the speech, Obama speaks about his admiration for John Lewis, the man who led the people in the Selma march. This shows his respect for the people who organized the march he is commemorating with his speech. Also, it reminds the audience that the civil rights gained for African Americans after the Selma march helped pave the way for Obama to …

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Symbols

In his speech, Barack Obama uses various symbols to inspire the audience and emphasize his ideas.

Throughout the speech, Obama suggests that the Selma marches are symbolic of America’s fight for freedom and equality. This is reflected in statements such as: “That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents”. As a symbol, the Selma marches also inspired other revolutionary movements, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall: “Y…

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