Comparison of speeches by Barrack Obama and Martin Luther King

All this we can do. All this we will do” At this point in the speech, I thought Obama had a perfect opportunity to raise his intonation and pace to galvanise the crowd to the thought of a utopian future. With much thought, I have arrived at the conclusion that this is feasible due to emotions and nerves on the day, as it was seemingly the most important day of his life, which affected his language choice resulting in losing his pre-planned applause.

The target domain when King says “cashing a cheque” is equal rights and the source domain is banking. He states that freedom for African Americans is something that was promised then never given through a comparison: "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" All listeners can understand the concept of not getting money they were promised. By cleverly relating lost money to the lost equality of the African Americans, King rouses the audience into associating segregation with something unfair.

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We can also learn from this quotation that MLK uses euphemism.

These variations on language choice are very important for politicians to understand and to use correctly. It is extremely important to be speaking inclusively with such a wide spectrum of people. Therefore it is imperative for politicians to use euphemism when speaking to such a diverse audience, not to offend anyone. The word “Negro” is out of context in today’s modern society. The more appropriate term today would be “Black Person” this is a great example to portray how language has adapted and developed over time, for different reasons and contexts.

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In my own opinion I think Barack Obama varies and exploits the use of tone very well and I feel that suprasegmentals can be extremely effective when used in engaging an audience. We learn this when he refers to previous racism, “Why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” He raises his tone to show strive for change. This anecdote is an excellent use of engaging an audience. Anecdotes are important when building a rapport and are an insight into the speaker, and their character. In the context of political talk, the speaker tries to cultivate a cult of personality. The personality of the politician as someone you can trust, aiding the purpose of engaging an audience.

The personal ingredient, in which Obama adds, evokes the audience, making them feel sympathetic and almost proud, that blacks have fought to get what they deserve, and that Obama being the first black president of the U.S.A., the barrier of racial discrimination has been broken. Obama’s illocution of personal reflection has the perlocutionary effect of engaging his audience. The emotional anecdote reveals humanity and creates a personal connection to his listeners. Again, this can be used as another example of what the impact of his language choice has on his audience’s, mine and others use. This is an intelligent idea, evoking the audience by adding personal reflections. For future use, I will most likely employ personal anecdotes into my own speeches, as it would further engage my audience.

Main Body – Repetition/Anaphora

The most prominent feature of MLK’s speech is repetition. In his speech, the repetition can be distracting, however, in a speech, it is essential to connect and engage with the audience. In giving short, simple sentences packed with power and passion, it will evoke the audience and involve them with the emotions of the speaker. A speech is judged by how much it moves an audience; therefore in my opinion I think this has the potential to be one of the best speeches of all time.

Anaphora is commonly used as a rhetorical device; it can be used to accentuate a point and the purpose of the rhetoric. Repeating the words twice sets the pattern, and further repetitions emphasise the pattern and increase the rhetorical effect. In this case, it is “Freedom”. Repetitions in forms like anaphora are quite obvious, but MLK used more subtle ways to use repetition as well. In one way he repeated the key “theme” words throughout the body of his speech. If you count the frequency of words used in King’s “I Have a Dream”, very interesting patterns emerge. The most commonly used noun is freedom, which is used twenty times in the speech. This makes sense, as the language choice influences and persuades the listeners, that freedom is one of the primary themes of the speech.

I assume that the speech, which he repeats key phrases to stress importance, is an appeal to pathos or emotions. “I have a dream” is repeated in eight successive sentences, and is one of the most often cited examples of anaphora in modern rhetoric. But this is just one of eight occurrences of anaphora in this speech. “Now is the time” “We must” “Go back to…” “With this faith” “Let Freedom ring” Even in the absence of the remainder of the speech, these key phrases tell much of King’s story. Emphasis through repetition makes these phrases more memorable, and, by extension, make King’s story more memorable. These references trigger certain emotions to Negroes of that era, these emotions want change, and these emotions want justice. Consequently, the speech really “hits home” and connects with the audience.

One of the most prominent features of Barack Obama’s speech is the repetition of didactic language (personal pronouns). Obama favours personal pronouns “we”, “us” and “our(s)” in the rest of the speech -the use of the pronouns, develops the perlocution in creating a sense of unity of the speaker with the audience. “We”, “us” and “our(s)” are employed 61, 20 and 65 times respectively and are, probably, the most often used words of the speech. Obama does not distance himself from the American people; instead, everything he proclaims further seems to be issued by “us”.

Learning from Ancient Greeks, Obama uses didactic poetry, with the purpose of: persuading, convincing and easy-to-be-remembered rhythmic style when addressing to a wide audience of the Americans. Didactic poetry rests upon repetition and parallelism, which are the basic tools for creating an easily memorised message. The impact of language choice is again is a great influence upon my own language awareness. Repetition clearly proved effective for both MLK and Obama, so in future situations when I have to persuade, repetition throughout my argument and the use of personal pronouns would seem the most effective way of achieving it. Often repetition is significantly effective when building up a rapport. The perlocutionary effect of repetition on the audience is engagement, and a very subtle yet effective way of achieving. In everyday use, repetition is certainly not a feature of my language; it is too formal and not relative to everyday context.

Main Body – Citing other Orators and Allusions

King and Obama improved the credibility of their arguments by referring to the appropriate words of credible speakers/writers in their speeches;

Obama has numerous times been compared with the black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and he himself draws attention to such a comparison, by attempting to imitate the same style as MLK. In my opinion, evoking historic and literary references is a powerful speechwriting technique which can be executed explicitly or implicitly, in which both MLK and Obama convey very effectively.

Numerous Biblical allusions provide the moral basis for King’s arguments: “It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” [Paragraph 2] alludes to Psalms 30:5 and is a practical use of contrasting concepts. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” [Paragraph 8] evokes Jeremiah 2:13 these are excellent uses of religious imagery. From discovering that King was a Baptist preacher, I was intrigued and therefore I researched other preachers of the style. I soon realised that they spoke almost identically to MLK, I realised that they all shared the same rhythmical and lyrical structure, the structure in which all Baptist ministers base their sermons on. This was interesting to become aware of, as I now realise that not only MLK uses this repetitive and rhythmic structure to persuade audiences, but the majority of all Baptist preachers.

Rhetoric in our own language choices are important, as we try to persuade people in everyday interactions about certain issues, rhetoric is a key skill. Rhetoric becomes incredibly important in the arena of political speech because the target is directed to engage a specific target audience. One of the tactics they may use is legitimation, which is the use of facts and statistics. Legitimation in the context of political speeches can be a powerful variant on the reasons why people use them, and choose to use them because their purpose is to persuade, their purpose is to engage and gain support from their target audience, as an audience when subject to use of statistics, they suddenly become aware that they can trust the speaker as the facts are something concrete and real.

“Five score years ago…” [Paragraph 2] refers to Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address speech which began “Four score and seven years ago…” This allusion is particularly poignant given that King was speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The variation in language due to the context and the influence of language choice for the context is extremely relevant, and is a very impressive use of language variation and other credible speakers citation’s to suit certain contexts.


Throughout this essay, I have evaluated how language is used for a range of purposes, how influences can affect language choice, how regional variations and non-standard variations can affect how a speech can be interpreted, and how variations due to Context/Time/Place affect the choice of language. There were factors which added to the impact of the MLK’s speech: The remarkable emotion of King’s delivery in terms of both voice and body.

The site at which it was delivered – on the steps of the memorial to the President who defeated southern states over the issue of slavery, which was extremely relevant to context. And finally the mood of the day, a sense of perpetuated slavery among black people and the gradual realisation of a sense of guilt among white people. I have realised that; in studying these texts, it has made me more aware of how to use language to engage or dismiss an audience, to persuade an audience and how to improve my overall tone for different purposes.

Updated: Mar 11, 2022
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Comparison of speeches by Barrack Obama and Martin Luther King. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

Comparison of speeches by Barrack Obama and Martin Luther King essay
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