Language power, power language

Power is a social reality. It is a result of social conventions that set specific roles and relations to particular situations. Such settings (situation + roles + relations) are also called schemata. For instance going to the supermarket is a situation, a happening. Part of this happening is a specific configuration of roles: some people are customers, others are shop assistants, shop managers, cashiers. The relation between customers on one hand and the shop staff on the other favours the former. All this configuration, situation (going-to-the-supermarket) + roles (customers, shop staff) + relations (customers demand, shop staff cater for) is a schema.

Schemata embed of course power relations. In the supermarket example, the customers obviously have the upper hand. Commercial interest is one possible lever that give an actor the power. But there are other power levers as well. One is knowledge of a particular kind; it can be specialist knowledge and it’s a common thing that professionals such as teachers or doctors enjoy a great deal of power in their exchanges with other, “ordinary” people. The media also possess power thanks to their privileged access to information.

Another power lever is access to a privileged circle or institution. This is visible in job interviews, where the applicant is somehow in the beggar position, trying hard to obtain the insider status. Bureaucratic institutions use power of a similar nature; civil servants are insiders but they also possess insider knowledge that is precious for the outsiders queueing in front of their offices. It can be knowledge of the relevant laws, of unwritten rules, of regulations and procedures, or simply knowledge of how the official forms should be completed. So in this case such power is obtained through both knowledge and insider status.

But this post is not going to be about the resorts of power itself, rather about the language of power, or how power is reflected in communication. So how do power-holding actors communicate, and more importantly how do they use language power?

Language-of-Power Show 1

A key use of power is the control over the topic, over the subject-matter. Classroom interaction (teacher-student), medical examinations or interviews with lawyers or officials are strictly controlled in what subject matter is concerned. The student, the patient or the “ordinary citizen” is in a position where they must stick to a set agenda. They can’t simply start their own conversation thread. And if they do, the power-actors will stop them and redirect the interaction.


The social conventions of communication in that particular schema give power-holders the freedom to use turn-taking strategies to control topic. This means that power-holders will interrupt you, will ignore your contributions explicitly, redirect the conversation or change the subject. The schema conventions will also enable the power-holders to control the subject by allowing them the exclusive rights to certain communicative actions, such as asking questions, complaining, making requests, or giving advice. Have you ever thought of making suggestions to your friends’ parents, for example, on things like house-keeping? Or giving your teachers advice on fashion and style? If you watch detective movies, in the police interrogations it’s only the police officers that ask the questions, and sometimes they say it explicitly.

Language-of-Power Show 2

Another type of control is that over the relations and roles in the communication. The power-actors can and will decide how formal the communication must be, and what formulas are to be used. Senior people, either in terms of age or of hierarchical positions, can decide who may address them in which form, when the register of the conversation can become more relaxed, or what language is to be used at all. Think of who you must call “Doctor X”, who you must address with “Sir” or “Madam”, or even “My Lady”. Think of times when you had to wait for the other to set the tone before you could tune in. Think again of teachers who expect you to use a particular vocabulary when demonstrating something, or just answering, in class.


Powerful actors control language formality or style mostly by correcting you or prompting you to reformulate your statement. They can force you to become explicit (what EXACTLY do you mean by that?) or to hedge (You mean, you BELIEVE we made a mistake, don’t you). They can actually interrupt you (as in the case of control over topic) to prompt you to go back and choose another wording.

Language-of-Power Show 3

The most devious power show is that of creating artificially an inferior role for you, in subliminal ways. This means that they do it without letting you know they’re at it. Advertising, for instance, by readily offering you this and that, sets the assumption that you are in need of help. Once you are in that position it is obvious that they play the role of the benefactor, or of the smart helper.


Here the means are more difficult to pin down, as this is a guerilla war for power. Typically I would say such a power show is triggered by a particular set of communicative actions (see above). Giving advice or making recommendations, giving feedback (even positive) or asking questions are all very risky actions, because they presuppose that you have the power position to perform them, to demand information or action. So next time you compliment someone stop and think if you’ve got the right to pass judgements on their performance at all.

Another subtle way to use power is irony, of course. Irony is the privilege of the superior. Irony doesn’t have to be directed against the person, as in teasing or making fun of someone. The simple use of irony indicates a certain freedom that the speakers takes to play with meanings and words.

One last idea here: be careful about the pronoun we. Sometimes we claims to put the speaker in the same boat with the listener, although it’s not so. It can just be a strategy of deception (I claim that I am solidary with you though we both know we are on opposite sides), an ironic remark (you and I are so different, but I just say WE so that you realise how ridiculous it is), or of manipulation (this is what I think but I want you to believe you think the same).

How can power-shows be blocked?

I don’t think there’s an all-round recipe. But as I said at the beginning, although power stems from the social arena, so not from language itself, it is mainly within language / communication that power shows take place. The actors are indeed set to interact according to a script, but power can be negotiated during the exchange. A strong non-power-holder can manage to keep their stand and attain their goals (get the information they wanted, make their point, put forward the criticism etc). So the scripts of the schemata are there, but every exchange is an open-ended battle.

The important thing to remember about negotiating for power: be sure you don’t break the script only to get power for yourself, or only to prove something. Negotiate to get power back when you feel power is being misused against you by the others.

As in the video, the ideas in this post were mostly inspired by Norman Fairclough’s book Language and Power (Longman, 1989).


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