Leah Windsor, University of Memphis

"A Theory of Language and Power in the International System"

A Theory of Language and Power in the International System


Leah C. Windsor

Research Assistant Professor

Institute for Intelligent Systems

Faculty Affiliate, Department of Political Science



How does language reveal power distribution in the international system? Power has traditionally been operationalized in material means, such as GDP and military strength; however, recent scholarship on soft power demonstrates how leaders use language and diplomacy to accomplish political goals. In strategic forums like the United Nations General Assembly general debate, language usage varies widely and suggests that the distribution of “common ground” between countries can be modeled with language. Here, leaders send signals about their priorities and intentions to international allies and enemies, to shore up alliances, and to build consensus. In this paper, I develop a theory of language and power that demonstrates that the differences in language are attributable to more than leader-specific features, and reflect regime characteristics that reveal the degree to which actors share common ground with one another. Previous research has established that linguistic formality indicates common ground amongst speakers, and that regime characteristics help explain interstate phenomena like conflict involvement and treaty commitments. I show the differences between the language used by non-democracies and democracies, and between types of non-democratic regimes. I attribute the differences in formality, in part, to the institutional features that constrain leaders and regimes domestically.



Dr. Leah Windsor is a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute for Intelligent Systems at The University of Memphis where she directs the Languages Across Cultures and Languages Across Modalities labs. She received her Bachelor of Science in Linguistics from Georgetown University in 1998, her Master’s degree in Political Science at The University of Memphis in 2005, and her Ph.D. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in 2012. Dr. Windsor served as PI for a DoD Minerva Initiative grant that examines political communication in authoritarian regimes and opaque political groups. Her work uses computational linguistics and discourse analysis to answer questions about leadership and regime traits, language and cognition, propaganda and persuasion, bluffs and threats, and radicalization. Her interdisciplinary approach to understanding political language is situated at the intersection of political science, linguistics, and cognitive science. She is also interested in issues of bias and ethnocentrism in studying political language, including corpus selection, translation, and document preparation. In 2018, she launched the QuantText website to serve as a repository for quantitative text analysis research. Her work has been published in PLOS-ONE, International Interactions, Political Research Quarterly, PS: Political Science and Politics, and Terrorism and Political Violence, and she serves on the Editorial Board of International Studies Quarterly. Her book on bias in family formation in academia (with Dr. Kerry Crawford) is forthcoming with Georgetown University Press.