New speech in French Revolution paved way for change

Researchers used machine learning to dig through the language in thousands of speeches from the French Revolution. Here's what they learned.

Different ways of speaking may have played a significant role in winning acceptance for the new principles of governance during the French Revolution, a new study suggests.

The French Revolution was one of the most important political transformations in history. Even more than 200 years later, it is held up as a model of democratic nation building.

For years, historians and political scientists have wondered how the democratic trailblazers of the French Revolution managed to pull off the creation of an entirely new kind of governance.

“There are a lot of new turns of phrase that people were offering in the political lobby and the audience didn’t go for it. On the other hand, there were other things that did stick.”

Researchers, including Simon DeDeo from Carnegie Mellon University, used machine learning techniques to comb through transcripts of nearly 40,000 speeches from the deliberations of the makeshift assembly formed during the revolution’s early days to hash out the laws and institutions of the new government.

The researchers analyzed speech patterns to determine how novel they were and whether they persisted or disappeared over time. They also categorized speech patterns by political affiliation and context—whether the speech occurred during the assembly’s public deliberations or in a committee held behind closed doors.

In general, assembly members who broke from convention and made their case in new ways were more effective in getting their proposals adopted. For example, revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre used new turns of phrase to communicate fresh ideas that then became new principles of the nascent government.

But not every new idea was well accepted. More conservative members of the assembly, who tended to use more traditional language, may not have been as influential as their more inventive counterparts on the left, but they often played an important role in keeping debates focused and infusing them with a dose of practicality.

“You see crucial players on the left wing who are sources of new ideas and new patterns of speaking,” says DeDeo, assistant professor of social and decision sciences in Carnegie Mellon University’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences who also holds an appointment at the Santa Fe Institute. “When they introduce these patterns they stick around. These are people who are bringing new ideas to the table, ideas that persist downstream.”

On how conservatives played a different role, DeDeo says, “They tend not to introduce new things—they’re following the course of the discussion, keeping the conversation on track. So you can see Robespierre introduce something—human rights, say—and the right doesn’t dismiss it, it discusses: ‘Let’s pause here and take that up.'”

Rebecca Spang, professor of history at Indiana University, notes how “a lot of the novelty doesn’t stick.”

“There are a lot of new turns of phrase that people were offering in the political lobby and the audience didn’t go for it. On the other hand, there were other things that did stick. And that’s what we call the revolution,” Spang says.

An unexpected insight from the analysis was that some of the most important work of the revolution was done in the committees, which were formed to work out particularly difficult issues and then present a recommendation to the full assembly. The small group dynamic allowed assembly members who may not have been powerful orators to exert influence.

“One thing we didn’t realize until doing this study was how many lesser-known revolutionaries were also working assiduously in the assembly, doing it through the assembly’s committees,” says Spang.

DeDeo believes the analysis shows how important individual members of a government body can be in shaping policy and that the lessons apply to today’s lawmakers as well.

“Some of the lessons we get out of it is that individuals do matter,” he says. “So you might say, who’s the Robespierre of Congress in 2018? And who’s keeping the conversation on track? Today, you might find that it’s the right wing introducing new things, with the left acting as a brake on what the right wants to do.”

The group will release the software it developed for the project so that other researchers can use it to conduct analyses of other government bodies around the world.

The researchers report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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