The language used by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech “I Have a Dream” reflects a combination of a political speech and a religious sermon. The speech is made memorable through its widespread use of metaphorical imagery along with emphatic repetitions. The language can be described as formal but accessible to a broad audience.
Choice of words
The choice of words mirrors the topics of the speech with references to freedom, civil rights, African Americans, and discrimination.
The speaker uses a number of words that create negative images, such as “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” (ll. 13-14), “the heat of oppression” (l. 122), “vicious racists” (l. 129) “unspeakable horrors of police brutality” (ll. 83-84), and “shameful condition” (l. 19). Such adjectives and nouns are used to describe the situation of African Americans in the 1960s.
In contrast to the current situation, the speaker also expresses his dream of a better future in which everybody has equal rights, by using words which convey positive images: “momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope” (ll. 7-8), “the bright day of justice” (ll. 58-59), “creative protest” (l. 67), “the majestic heights” (l. 68), “marvelous new militancy” (l. 70), “the riches of freedom” (l. 37), etc.
You should also note that the speaker uses the word “Negro” in the speech to refer to African Americans and create a sense of community in adversity. At that time, it was common to name African Americans using that word, but it became less common later on. Today it is considered racist by most people, because it is related to the history of slavery.
Note that King uses a lot of financial imagery, particularly in the first part of the speech. This is because he creates an extended metaphor of the American nation owing something to the African American population, but which it has so far failed to deliver: “America has defaulted on this promissory note” (l. 28); “America has given the Negro people a bad c...