Language Complexity in Parliament: Use and Effect of Simple Language Among (Non-) Populist Actors in Parliamentary Debates


Populist politicians often claim that mainstream politics are too complex and far away from ‘ordinary’ citizens. Therefore, populist actors aim to be closer to the ‘ordinary’ citizens and act in their will. One strategy of populist actors is to simplify political problems. This can be achieved through oversimplification of complex problems, but also through the use of simpler language. Current studies — both qualitative and quantitative — are divided on whether populist actors actually use simpler language. Analyzing a large text corpus of German parliamentary debates from January 1991 to September 2021, this paper aims to resolve this controversy by measuring language complexity in parliamentary discourse. The paper hypothesizes that populist actors use simpler language than other actors, following their ideal of a simplified world between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The analysis, however, positively refutes that populist actors, at least in the German case, use simpler language. Instead, right-wing populist actors seem to use the most complex language in a certain time period. Left-wing populists seem to use somewhat average language complexity compared to other parties. At the same time, the paper finds that language complexity decreased significantly in the German parliament over time. Additionally, this paper shows that language complexity is context-specific and people-dependent. As such, this paper also discusses how simple language can be used as a substantive or surrogate form of representation and how this contradicts the populist use of symbolic representation and may explain why populists abstain from using simple language in their parliamentary discourse.

Draft available upon request
Rebecca C. Kittel
Rebecca C. Kittel
Post Doctoral Researcher

My research interests include parliamentary behaviour, populism research, party and voter behavior as well as protest studies.