The importance of “small” words: pronominal selection in parliamentary discourse

This post is by Kaspar Beelen. Kaspar is a post-doctoral researcher and a member of the Toronto branch of our project team.


Democratization fundamentally changed the form and function of parliamentary representation. From an assembly dominated by a class of notables, parliament evolved to an arena where socio-economic antagonisms became more and more explicitly articulated by parties and their leaders. In “The Principles of Representative Government” Bernard Manin described how deliberation in these representative institutions changed from an open discussion between independent MPs to a confrontation between more or less disciplined party formations. Put differently, the deictic center of parliamentary discourse shifted from an independent “I” to an exclusive “we”.

Inspired by Manin and others, I investigated to what extent parliamentary deliberation in the Belgian lower house (“Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers”) changed in times of democratization by looking at the linguistic behavior of MPs through the prism of pronominal selection. Instead of analyzing (theoretical) reflections on the changing character of political representation, I chose to study how, from a longitudinal perspective, shifts in the daily discursive practice of MPs relate to the transformation of representative government. In addition to scrutinizing chronological evolution, I analyzed how pronominal selection correlates with certain attributes of the speaker (ideology, power status, age).

Democratization and discursive change


To what extent did a shift from an “I”- to a “we”-centered political culture occur in the Belgian “Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers”? Manin’s observations were partly confirmed by my analysis. After 1893 and 1919, when the electoral system was reformed, the use of the first person plural increased significantly. Still the frequency of “I”-statements remained more or less stable over the studied period (1844-1940) and even showed a slightly upward tendency.

The “I” remained by far the most important discursive actor and instead of resolving into a “we”, the political “ego” became more expressive. What changed was the way in which representatives articulated their individuality. From a Goffmanian perspective, their speech acts consistently narrowed down their “negative face” or freedom of action. During the nineteenth century the frequency of mental state verbs such as “croire” and “penser” systematically decreased. “Je pense” and “je crois” – both can be translated as “I think” – signify commitment to a proposition but leave room for deliberation by specifying the personal point of view of the claim. In this respect they belong the most “deliberative” class of first person expressions as they leave room for negotiation.

While these phrases were decreasing in frequency, “I”-references embedded in discursive processes (“je dis” (I say), “je demande” (I ask)) were on the rise. The same was true for cognitive processes that signified a higher degree of epistemological certainty (“je sais”) or stronger emotive commitment (“je veux”, “je tiens à”). All of these combinations left less room for negotiation and metadiscursive parliamentary language resembled  written discourse more and more. The political “I” moved from a “negotiator” to a “writer” and instead of deliberation, the expression of a fixed opinion gained in importance. Although these findings partly confirmed Manin’s conclusion, they warned against overemphasizing the influence of parties on processes of identity formation. Despite the increase of collective forms of identification, parliamentary debates remained principally a discussion between individuals. Also, the transformation of the parliamentary “ego” was part of a longitudinal process, which started in the middle of the nineteenth century, well before the introduction of universal suffrage.

The pronouns of power/The power of pronouns

Previous research has shown how pronominal selection correlates with specific attributes of the speaker, such as gender, age or social status. In the context of parliamentary debates however, only the power status of the representative significantly correlated with certain pronominal patterns. MPs belonging to the parliamentary majority used the first person singular more frequently, especially in combination with mental state verbs (“je crois” and “je pense”). Closer reading indicated that MPs with more institutional power left more room for negotiation when giving their personal opinion, thereby displaying greater respect for the negative face of the speaker and the audience. In parliament, politeness and power seemed to correlate positively. An analysis of the textual context of mental state verbs also suggested that members belonging to the majority employed “je crois” to introduce positive opinions while opposition members mostly used this expression to signal a negative or critical stance.