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Languages. Semantic features - Afro Americans

The objective of this course paper is to analyze the semantic categories of adjectives in two public speeches of Afro-American people.

There is a distance of nearly a hundred years between these two speeches. Many things have changed since the first speech was made in 1906. Today many accusations made by Marry Church Terrell towards white people would make no sense. The situation of Afro-Americans has got much better since the beginning of the twentieth century. There is no form of Jim Crow segregation: they have all political and social rights, religious liberty as well. Her speech is still very important because it corresponds to the picture of the past, which was very complicated for black people. Such speeches should remind the rest of mankind that we are all equal and no type of discrimination should arise in the future. The second speaker, Barack Obama, is a great example of the society that already changed. He is a famous American politician, the junior United States Senator from Illinois. According to the U.S. Senate Historical Office, he is the fifth African American Senator in U.S. history and the only African American currently serving in the U.S. Senate. He is a candidate for the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nomination (

The research analyzes the speeches starting with the prior one and proceeding to the modern-day speech in order to observe their changes in the use of adjectives. The main goal of the speakers is to make their speech as compelling as it is possible. Since these speeches are of a political nature, they should raise no doubts or ambiguities because it may cause misunderstanding, the disaffection of the audience, and many other further problems.

According to Biber et al (2005), the classifiers are more common in political discourse than descriptors. In order to prove it, this course paper focuses on counting and comparing descriptors and classifiers. Although descriptors and classifiers provide different content, they both relate to the meaning. Descriptors define color, size, quantity, time, age, and denote judgments, emotions, and empathy. Classifiers limit or restrict a noun’s referent rather than describing characteristics in the way the descriptors do (Biber et al, 2005:197).

The research methods in this work conform to the thesis of Biber et al. This work is both descriptive and comparative; therefore it counts the adjectives, shows the frequency of descriptors and classifiers, and compares the results in order to prove the thesis. The findings should help to interpret the context of the text and the text itself. The facts should show whether the speaker uses the adjectives at random or it is a well-prepared speech to achieve their goals, i.e. to convince the audience and to influence the public opinion.

The corpus is available for closer examination, i.e. it highlights all adjectives in bold by writing them in capital letters of other type and color. This preparation helps to see the objective of this course paper more distinctly.

 The research counts and compares the number of descriptors with the number of classifiers. One of the main aims is to identify the semantic category of each adjective in the corpus. The semantic category of classifiers is concerned with objectivity because they usually do not have any evaluative meaning. In contrast to classifiers, descriptors usually present the subjective opinion of the speaker. This research does not subdivide the semantic category of descriptors according to their characteristics.

The distinction between descriptors and classifiers is not always clear. Sometimes it is very difficult to decide to which semantic category the adjective belongs, especially if this adjective is a verb participle. Uncertainty emerges because the distinction between descriptors and classifiers is not always clear. The researcher has to use a context in such cases.

The research presents all the adjectives in three tables, i.e. the adjectives of the first speech, the adjectives of the second one, and the tables that compare the number of adjectives in both texts. These tables divide adjectives into descriptors and classifiers. They show the exact number of each one and at the end of the table. There is a total number of adjectives of those two semantic categories. Furthermore, the research presents the share of descriptors and classifiers against all adjectives in each speech. The comparison of the counts should reveal which semantic category is more common in the speeches of these Afro-American people.

In conclusion, this analysis pays attention to the count and comparison of descriptors and classifiers. The analysis of the adjectives in the corpus should confirm the thesis of Biber et al (2005) that classifiers are more common in political speeches than descriptors.

Political speeches play an essential role in public relations. They not only provide the society with information on current political, economical, cultural, etc. situations but also help to influence and form the opinion of the people. Free speech warrants that everyone has a right to express his opinion. Thus try to change the situation or living conditions in his country. M. C. Terrell was one of the first Afro-Americans who used her right to speak freely. She made the segregation problem public. B. Obama is nowadays a politician. Public speaking is not such a meaningful event for him as it was for Terrell. Politicians make a lot of speeches today. Still, this shows that they want to be heard.

The current course paper analyzes two speeches. Speech 1 is given by M. C. Terrell in 1906 and Speech 2 is given by B. Obama in 2004. These 98 years that separate the speeches have brought significant changes for the better. There is no Jim Crow segregation for Afro-American people. They have a right to vote, to live wherever they want, to work whatever they want. They are proud of being African descent what was an inconceivable thing at the beginning of the 20th century. Today Afro-Americans like Barack Obama are very happy to live in the USA and even have a possibility to a candidate for the presidential nomination.
Freedom of speech is the concept of the inherent human right to voice one's opinion publicly without fear of censorship or punishment ( A speech is defined as a talk or public address ( Speeches made by public speakers not only provide the society with the most important information about the questions and problems of the day but also influence the opinions of their audience. The speakers strain after an effect on their listeners. They seek the approval and support of their ideas. The text of the speech tends to be attractive and interesting to whom it is directed. One of the main objectives of this course paper is to reveal what types of adjectives are more popular in the speeches that form the corpus. Although these speeches are of political nature and they are supposed to use more classifiers than descriptors (Biber et al), nevertheless they may employ some topical classifiers which provide descriptive content. These adjectives have descriptor’s characteristics. The implication is that they can describe opinions, attitudes, or emotions as well.  

The first speech (Appendix 1) belongs to Marry Church Terrell. She was one of the first dark-skinned women engaged in lecturing and other activities fighting for recognition of women and Negroes. She was a popular speaker and lecturer and wrote many articles denouncing segregation. Her attitude towards all human beings might be best described by the "Letter to the Editor", printed in "The Washington Post" on the 14th of May in 1949: "We are the only human beings in the world with…57 varieties of complexions who are classed together as a single racial unit. Therefore, we are truly colored people, and that is the only name in the English language which accurately describes us." In her speech "What It Means to Be Colored in the Capital of the United States", M.C. Terrell tries to revolt against the American society of the day. She wants them to change their attitude towards Afro-Americans. She uses irony in her speech in order to attract as much attention as it is possible.

Table 1 shows the distribution of descriptors and classifiers in Speech 1. It also presents the frequency of types and tokens in order to see if there are particular adjectives that she employs very often. The analysis counted tokens to compare adjectives with other word classes.

Table 1.   The distribution and frequency of adjectives in Speech 1
Descriptors Frequency Classifiers Frequency
Bitter 2 Colored 54
Worse 1 National 7
Strange 1 Handicapped 1
Dark 3 Prosaic 1
Hungry 2 Intolerable 1
Fair 6 Entire 1
Poor 2 Supplied 1
Honest 1 Single 4
Difficult 1 Very 2
Numerous 1 Forced 2
Impossible 1 Electric 1
Neat 1 Intelligent 1
Keen 1 Peculiar 1
Comfortable 1 Afflicted 1
Greatest 1 Dusky 1
Lofty 1 Menial 2
Unexceptionable 1 Trained 1
Short 1 Public 4
Attractive 1 Intelectual 1
Satisfactory 1 Competent 2
Bank 1 Artistic 1
Deep 3 Unavailing 1
Disheartening 1 Signal 1
Largest 2 Living 1
Dry 2 Catholic 1
Sure 1 Columbian 1
Fine 1 Southern 1
Overconfident 1 Literary 2
Glad 1 Skilled 2
Hearty 1 Expert 1
Slightest 1 Possessed 1
Cruel 2 Racial 1
Oppressed 1 Competent 1
Beautiful 1 Menial 1
Large 1 Lucrative 1
Largest 1 Separated 1
Tired 1 Native 1
Munificent 1 Brilliant 1
Little 11 Unnatural 1
Brown 3 Cold-blooded 1
Argus-eyed 1 Persecuted 1
Last 4 Inevitable 1
Bissful 1 Cosmopolitan 1
Fine 1 Similar 2
Meager 1 Head 1
Coveted 1 Fatal 1
Strenuous 1 Few 1
Smooth 1 Remote 1
Idle 1 Discernible 1
Skilful 1 Naked 1
Hopeless 1 Unnoticed 1
Insurmountable 1 Paternal 1
Broad 1 Lost 1
Awful 1 Peculiar 1
Hateful 1 Swarthy 1
Hideous 1 Injured 1
Wide 1 Pathetic 1
    Sophisticated 1
    Equal 1
    Particular 1
    Uniform 1
    Physical 2
    Manual 1
    Superior 1
    Present 1
    Distinguished 1
    Expert 2
    Private 1
    Deprived 1
    Separate 1
    Enacted 1
    Decent 1
    Refractory 1
    Stoical 1
    Brilliant 1
    Sympathetic 1
Total: Tokens 87 Total: Tokens 150
Types 57 Types 76
The analysis of Speech 1 shows that the speaker uses classifiers practically twice as many as descriptors. This means she concentrates on persuading and affecting the audience. She wants people to believe that the situation of Afro-Americans is really worth paying attention to. Therefore, Terrell employs more classifiers. She puts special emphasis on the adjective colored. This classifier appears 54 times in her speech. That is the most frequent adjective among all the rest.  This word is not a random choice. The repetition of the classifier colored makes the audience to focus on the idea it carries. It has a specific social context to all black people. In the twentieth century, it was used as a synonym for a black human being. White society wanted them to identify themselves with this characterization. This meant that there would always be a color gap between the human race.

Speech 2 (Appendix) belongs to Barack Obama. He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in the family of Kenyan and white American. In his early childhood, Obama wrote: "That my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk—barely registered in my mind" ( This means that from the very beginning he lived in a society full of contrasts. Most importantly it means that at the beginning of the 7th decade, society has already changed, i.e. there was no racial discrimination anymore. The dream Marry Church Terrell longed for was come true. Obama’s opinion about the situation of Afro-Americans in the USA is completely different from Terrell’s one. He believes that neither one’s name, nor social status can close the door to success.

B. Obama uses 109 types of adjectives. There are more classifiers than descriptors in his speech. Descriptors make 40,4% of all the adjectives. Whereas classifiers make 59,6%.

Table 2 shows the frequency and distribution of descriptors and classifiers in Speech 2.
Table 2. The distribution and frequency of adjectives in Speech 2
Descriptors Frequency Classifiers Frequency
Great 9 Particular 1
Deepest 1 Foreign 2
Unlikely 1 Born 2
Small 4 Raised 1
Larger 2 Tin-roof 1
Hard 4 Domestic 1
Magical 1 Federal 1
Big 2 Common 1
Improbable 1 African 3
Abiding 1 Blessed 1
Tolerant 1 Generous 1
Best 9 Aware 1
Rich 2 Knowing 1
Grateful 1 Other 1
Precious 1 Self-evident 1
Possible 1 Equal 2
Simple 2 Certain 6
True 1 Inalienable 1
Young 19 Safe 2
Black 2 Sudden 1
Slight 1 Political 1
Tough 1 Future  
Easier 1 Own 5
Dangerous 1 Inner 1
Good-looking 1 Decent 1
Clear-eyed 1 Open 1
Easy 1 Heroic 1
Full 1 United 7
Clear 2 Constitutional 1
Real 1 Basic 1
Poorer 1 First 1
White 17 Named 1
Red 4 Following 1
Blue 4 Absolute 1
Awesome 1 Missing 1
Little 2 Long-term 1
Gay 1 Shattered 1
Skinny 1 Loved 1
Funny 1 Solemn 1
Greatest 1 Secure 1
Better 1 Famous 1
Right 1 South 1
Long 3 Senior 2
Brighter 1 Arab 1
    Civil 1
    Fundamental 1
    Individual 1
    American 1
    Negative 1
    Liberal 1
    Conservative 1
    Latino 1
    Asian 1
    Federal 1
    Blind 1
    Willful 1
    Substantial 1
    Distant 1
    Naval 1
    Middle 1
    Working 1
    Righteous 1
    Same 4
    Made 1
    Herding 1
Total: Tokens 115 Total: Tokens 90
Types 44 Types 65
Speech 2 is political, therefore the analysis of it shows that the speaker uses more classifiers than descriptors. Although the purpose of this speech is to persuade the audience at the national Democratic convention, the speaker employs the adjectives that make his speech rather subjective than objective. The most frequent adjectives are young, white, great, and best used respectively 19, 17, 9, and 9 times. All these adjectives are descriptors and have positive connotations. These adjectives are not a random choice. He wants to affect the audience positively, therefore Obama uses adjectives that raise this kind of emotion.

To sum up, the second speech represents the attitude of a latter-day American politician. Though he has an African background, he thinks that the USA is the best place in the world to live. B. Obama uses more classifiers than descriptors in his speech. Although he employs more participial descriptors than participial classifiers. He does not only concentrate on persuading the audience and influencing them but also on describing the situation in the USA. The usage of adjectives as great, magical, or generous while talking about the America, is not an unintended aspect of his speech. Obama wants Americans to believe that they live in the best country all over the world.

In conclusion, the research proves Biber’s et al (2005) thesis fully. The analysis of two speeches shows that classifiers are more popular in both speeches. The speech of M. C. Terrell is based on persuading the audience into taking actions against the racial discrimination, while the speech of B. Obama – on describing the scene of the USA. Terrell uses more adjectives that have negative connotations and Obama, contrarily, uses more adjectives that have positive connotations. Nevertheless, both semantic categories of adjectives help them to achieve their goals.


The object of the current analysis is an adjective. To be more precise, its purpose is to analyze different types and uses of adjectives according to their semantic groups. The hypothesis states that there are more classifiers in the political speech than descriptors (Biber et al). The analysis proves this. The classifiers occur more often in both speeches. They make 57% in Speech 1 and 60% in Speech 2. Speech 1 uses marginally more descriptors (43%) than Speech 2 (40%). Though Speech 2 uses more participial descriptors (12) than speech 1 (5). The results show that the number of adjectives does not depend on the length of the speech. For example, Speech 1 consists of 3703 words and it is longer than Speech 2 which consists of 2259 words. Yet Speech 1 employs fewer classifiers.

These two speeches are similar to one another not only because their authors are Afro-Americans but also because of their express speaker’s attitude. Some concepts might not be conveyed literally, nonetheless, they can be easily perceived if one is aware of the semantic functions of ordinary adjectives. Every speech is well-calculated scheme with a goal to reach and affect its addressee.
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