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 here.
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
The speaker uses a combination of personal pronouns throughout the speech – the most frequent are the third-person plural “they” and the first-person plural “we”.
Obama uses the third-person plural whenever he speaks about the Americans who marched at Selma: “they gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation. They marched as Americans (…) b...