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A Rhetorical Analysis of the Speech “I Have a Dream”

The speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 is a perfect example of the text with skillful use of various rhetorical devices. Although George Orwell in 1946 stated that English language became ugly and inaccurate because of political and economic reasons (Orwell), the speech “I Have a Dream” addressed to all Americans proves that there are always exceptions. Moreover, the text has a particular meaning, and the author expresses it in a clear and exquisite manner, which, according to Orwell, is hardly possible for present-day speakers. Talking about freedom, slavery and equality, King operates with different rhetorical techniques in order to achieve his goal – convince people to fight for their freedom and equality.

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Trying to make the text of the speech more influential, King adheres to such rhetorical strategies as ethos, pathos and logos. The author of the speech pays little attention to the aspect of logos as he intends to appeal to audience’s feelings and emotions to make it support him. King organizes the speech in a logical way, putting the strongest points at the end. However, one can hardly find the examples of inductive and deductive reasoning in the text. Thus, neglecting the logic, the speaker pays more attention to ethos and pathos.

“I Have a Dream” possesses some characteristics that are used to integrate the personality of the author with the audience. Martin Luther King addresses all Americans, trying to establish a common ground with all people. Still, his focus is more on African Americans that were not treated as equal to the rest of citizens at the time of speech delivery. Thus, African Americans are his intended audience. The author is black, which makes the African Americans appreciate his words. Moreover, as King refers to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the audience trusts him more since Lincoln was very popular in those times. In addition to that, King mentions the Declaration of Independence and American Constitution, the acts that are valued and adhered to by people. Finally, the author mentions his family in the speech (King) to show the listeners that he is an ordinary person just like they are. Referring to all these aspects, the speaker establishes his credibility and trustworthiness, which help him to better convince people to follow him.

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The aspect of pathos in the speech is the most developed. As the author tries to appeal first of all to the listener’s emotions and feelings, he uses the techniques that have exactly that impact he wants. For this reason, King chooses the words very carefully. If to refer to the choice of words in the speech, Orwell would have considered some of them as too pompous and overused. For example, King uses the adjectives like momentous, magnificent and nouns like freedom, decree, proclamation, injustice, which, according to Orwell, became sheer political words for they do not have as much meaning as they should. However, King applies them in a good manner, and, with the help of these words, his speech sounds more expressive, influential and appealing to the listeners.

The language of the speech is very poetic. In order to exert greater influence on the listeners, Martin Luther King uses many metaphors, similes, repetitions, epithets, and other stylistic devices that appeal to the audience’s emotions. Thus, one can find such metaphors in his speech: ‘flames of withering injustice’, ‘night of captivity’, ‘cup of bitterness and hatred’, ‘a lonely island of poverty’, ‘a vast ocean of material prosperity’ (King), and many others. The author also uses simile: ‘as a great beacon of light of hope’, ‘as a joyous daybreak’ (King), and others. The text also has a big number of epithets that are applied to make people more captured by the subject of the speech. Thus, the author uses such adjectives that serve as epithets: invigorating (autumn), crooked (places), mighty (mountains), and others (King). One can also find an example of biblical allusion: “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (King). Quoting the Bible, King not only makes people more involved in his speech, but also establishes his credibility. Martin Luther King was a preacher, so people tended to trust him more than other activists.

For the same reason (appealing to the audience’s emotions), King applies such devices as parallelism, repetition, analogy, and others. The use of repetition is the first thing that every listener or reader notices in the speech. King says “I have a dream” over and over again in order to make people believe in his strong desire to achieve that dream. Parallelism is similar to repetition, but it is arranged in a bit different way. A good example of parallelism in the speech is the use of phrase “one hundred years later” (King). The author uses this structure to make a distinction between the past and the present, so that the listeners could evaluate current state of things and draw some conclusions out of the comparison. An example of analogy is the comparison of civil rights to a check (King). Using this device, King tries to persuade people that they are not treated as they deserve to be. Thus, various stylistic devices in the speech serve to convince people, make them feel a certain way, and foster to think differently.

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To conclude, Martin Luther King delivered his speech in order to convince people that they need to fight for their equality to others and call them for action. In order to be more persuasive, the speaker adhered to rhetorical strategies of ethos, pathos, and logos, although the appeal to the audience’s emotions was used most often. King made the speech very poetic. The text has many epithets, metaphors, and similes. The examples of analogy, parallelism, repetition, and other rhetorical strategies can also be found in King’s speech as they make the audience more deliberate about the point to support. Clearly, King uses all these techniques in order to convince people to support him.

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