In a previous blog post, I showed how formality in the world varies. The more democratic and/or institutionalized a state is, the less formal their language at the United Nations General Assembly. Conversely, the less democratic and/or institutionalized, the more formal the state representative's language. This is a curious, perhaps counter-intuitive issue. Initially, I assumed that for democracies, public speeches (especially such high-profile ones as the General Debate) would be highly vetted and wordsmithed - and more formal. This is not the case! They are, in fact, crafted to be less formal. I interpret this as a signal that they are members of an in-group, and as such need fewer formalities to signify rank or proof of status. Even non-democracies like China have informal language on par with Western Europe and the United States; I attribute this to their degree of institutionalization and similar scrutiny at the hands of the Communist party's speechwriters and policy powerholders.
Brevity is the soul of wit
Why, then, do non-democracies use more formal language before their global peers on the world stage at the United Nations? One interpretation is that they are political outsiders who seek to bolster their reputation by appearing and sounding more credible. Ironically, this type of language sometimes backfires and serves to discredit where it is intended to impress. There is well established literature that shows that, in the hierarchy of relationships, subordinates use verbose and often clunky phrases as compared to their more terse superiors. (Think: the last time you emailed your boss, carefully checking and re-checking for spelling and other errors, ensuring that your language was clear and conveyed *exactly* what you intended...only to get a three-word response in reply.)
This is exactly the type of writing found in the speeches of many authoritarian regimes: dense writing peppered with honorifics. Their highfalutin language serves to undermine the legitimacy they wish to convey and instead solidifies their position as outsiders in the global community. The implications for this feature of language include demonstrating political transitions (both democratization as well as backsliding) with linguistic measures, as well as emerging and disintegrating coalitions.