Analysis of the speech I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King

Speech Analysis:

“I Have a Dream”

(Author’s name)

(Institutional Affiliation)


In August 1963, in front of the entire African American Community, Martin Luther King astonished his audience with his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Spectacularly delivered at Lincoln’s Memorial, the speech is considered one of the most influential speeches of all times (Echols, 2004). Literary, Martin Luther King, the author of the speech is said to have produced highly effective rhetoric speech as it persuaded many of the audience into the achievement of its intended purpose. The speech not only identified and united the African American community in the United States of America, it also encouraged them to search for freedom as a community. His moralistic command for racial impartiality and an integrated society quickly became a mantra for the African American community from the time when the speech was delivered to date (Echols, 2004). In essence, the speech is considered as an important determinant of the US declaration of Independence, as it help shape the political and social structure of the state into what it is today. The central theme of the speech was the concept that all people were created equal, and that no person was and is more equal than the other.

The speech consists of three main parts. The first part provides a picture of the racial situation in America at the time, while the second part explains why the situation calls for a correction and change. The last part of the speech examines the dream of a better, and racially, fairer future while illustrating what needs to be done in order to achieve this dream (Echols, 2004). Martin Luther King argued fervently and effectively while using some of the literary elements of speech writing, which illustrates some of the speech’s usage of some stylistic techniques in English. Martin Luther King utilizes repetition for the emphasis of his theme: he also uses suitable quotations and allusions, and utilizes specific examples and metaphors to provide his arguments in the speech. Accordingly, two other literary elements of speech writing are recognizable in the speech including the use of speech acts , and the utilization of gricean maxims.

This paper provides an in-depth analysis of the speech “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King. Specifically, the paper examines the use of speech acts and gricean maxims in the speech, illustrating how these have influenced the readers’ perceptions and reception of the speech.

Speech Acts

In English, the term speech act is used to define a speaker’s actions through utterance (Smith, 1990). Speech Acts are common in the philosophy of language, and they are commonly used when describing an action that has been taken or is to be taken in the future. Speech acts are of three main acts including locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary speech acts all of which are used differently in the performance of the speech. Locutionary speech acts refer to the actual utterance of the speaker during the delivery of the speech. When examining the use of locutionary speech acts, one must also consider the ostensible meaning of the words being uttered, so as to, determine the theme of the speech and its intended purpose (Smith, 1990). Illocutionary speech acts on the other hand refer to acts or utterances that illustrate the speakers intended meaning of the speech. Put simply, they are acts that are used to describe the real meaning of the poem to its audience.

Illocutionary acts can further be classified into five main categories including assertives, expressives, declarations, commisives and directives (Smith, 1990). Lastly, perlocutionary speech acts define the effects and consequences of the speech to its listeners. Perlocutionary speech acts can only be identified after the delivery of the speech as it is the best way of finding out the effects of the speech on its audience. Evidently, Martin Luther King’s speech demonstrates the use of all three speech acts as mentioned above. The first illustration of the use of speech acts by Martin Luther King is exemplified as a locutionary act. As previously mentioned, a locutionary act refers to the actual utterance of the speaker as well as the intended purpose of the speech. Locutionary acts are illustrated throughout the speech with the first sentences of the speech carrying a considerable level of the usage of these acts. The speaker begins by explaining the intended meaning of the speech.

Martin Luther King welcomes his audience to the event and he explains that the speech is intended for the demonstration of freedom in the state. This illustrates the use of a locutionary speech act as the readers are provided with what appears to be a thesis statement of the speech. Accordingly, the rest of the speech is followed by the actions to be performed with regards to the attainment of racial freedom, as well as, the significance of attaining that freedom to the audience. Because the speech calls people into action regarding racial injustice, the reader can see the usage of illocutionary in the speech. The use of illocutionary acts in the speech is demonstrated through the use of all five categories of illocutionary speech acts.


The first and most prominent use of illocutionary acts in the speech is illustrated by the use of declaration speech acts. Declaration speech acts refer to speech acts that transform the reality of the matter being discussed in such a way that it agrees with the suggestion of the speech (Smith, 1990). Martin Luther King utilizes this to illustrate the problematic situation in his society, as well as, propose a way forward in relation to the actions that need to be taken. For example, in his statement, “Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.” (King, 1963), Martin Luther King explains how the African American community is still suffering in its own society. This can be considered as a declaration of sorts as it transforms what the readers consider as the reality of the matter to the perceptions of Martin Luther King regarding the issue.


Martin Luther King utilizes assertive as part of illocutionary speech acts such as the statement, “But one hundred years later, the negro is still not free.” (King, 1963), which is used to assert the current situation of the society at the time. Accordingly, an assertive is an illocutionary speech act that is used as a commitment to the truth by the speaker during the delivery of the speech (Smith, 1990). In a way assertive are linked with the actual truth of what is being said and the speaker illustrates his assurance towards this truth as a way of asserting his position on the subject matter.


The use of directives in the speech is illustrated in the way Martin Luther King uses his words to convince the audience into taking a particular action regarding the issue of racial freedom in the state (Smith, 1990). Specifically, Martin Luther King directs the listeners into the actions that need to be taken for the achievement of what he considers as the ideal. His statement “We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” (King 1963), advices people on what should be done for the attainment of racial equality. This statement instructs his listeners to shun away physical violence for the attainment of racial equality, and instead, look into other ways of achieving this.


Martin Luther King also embraces the use of commissive speech acts in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Commissives are defined as speech acts that consign a speaker, as well as, his audience to future actions (Smith, 1990). In essence, commissives refer to pledges that the speaker makes with regards to the subject matter which is under discussion. Martin Luther King demonstrates the use of commissives in the last part of his speech, whereby he instigates the need for future action by both himself and the African American community. He states that, “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” (King, 1963), illustrates martin Luther king’s role in the achievement of freedom. Accordingly, his dream is that the black community will have a better future, and by using the words “I have a Dream” Martin Luther King promises his audience of a better future.


The last use of illocutionary speech acts in Martin Luther king’s speech is illustrated through the use of the fifth category of illocutionary speech acts known as expressive. In linguistics, expressive describe the acts of speech that articulate or communicate the speaker’s perceptions, feelings, and thought regarding the proposition of the speech (Smith, 1990). Martin Luther King utilizes expressive to explain his personal attitudes towards the issues in two main ways including his distaste for the society’s situation at the time, as well as, his hope for a better future in the years ahead. The latter is illustrated in the statement, “This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” (King, 1963). This statement provides the audience with the speakers attitudes regarding a better tomorrow as he is hopeful that his nation will transform into the ideal. An example of his attitude regarding the situation in the state is illustrated in Martin Luther King’s words, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” (King, 1963). This illustrate martin Luther King’s thoughts on what was happening around him at the time with regards to racial discrimination and his community.

Gricean Maxims

Another literary technique that has been used in Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream” is gricean maxims. Gricean maxims are literary techniques that are used for the unification of the speaker’s utterance to the comprehension of the audience regarding the speech (Bowe, 2007). Put simply, they refer to the methods used to link a speaker’s words to what the audience understands from the speech. These techniques are used to build on the message being communicated by the speaker to his audience so as to ensure that the message is efficiently communicated to the audience. There exists four categories of gricean maxims including the maxims of quality, quantity, manner and relation (Cameron, 2001). Accordingly, the speech by Martin Luther king demonstrates the use of all five categories of gricean maxims, as a way of persuading the audience about the subject matter. Specifically, these maxims have been used to illustrate the precision of what the speaker is bringing to light, as well as, propose various ways and methods through which this problematic situation can be changed for a better future.

The Maxim of Quality

The maxim of quality demands that the speaker be truthful at all times with regards to the information that he gives in his speech (Bowe, 2007). In the formulation of a speech, the authors and speakers are required to venture into research so as to gather all the necessary information regarding the subject matter to be discussed in the speech. This is done extensively and in such a way that the audience believe that they have all the information that is crucial for the discussion of the topic, as well as, the assurance that the topic is a significant subject for discussion and possible action. In his speech Martin Luther King illustrates the use of the maxim of quality when he states that there was a previous decree that was signed with relation to the freeing of slaves that has not yet been put into proper practice for the achievement of that freedom (King, 1963). He states this in the introductory part of the speech, which indirectly illustrates the truthfulness of the information presented. By saying this, the audience is led to believe that the speaker has examined the issue at hand and his findings are based on research. Additionally, the maxim of quality also demands that the speaker supports his words by the use of evidence. Evidence, in this case is presented in the mentioning of the “Emancipation Proclamation” that was signed previously and that had not been effectively put in place hence the problem of racial inequality.

The Maxim of Quantity

The second maxim used in martin Luther King’s speech is the maxim of quantity. In the linguistics, the maxim of quantity is a literary technique that embraces the best possible use of educational facts. In essence, it is a literary technique whereby the author or speaker tries works on being informative, as opposed to, being mystifying (Bowe, 2007). Accordingly, the speaker or author is expected to provide, as much information as needed, no more, and no less. In his speech Martin Luther King demonstrates the use of this throughout the speech whereby he mentions the degree of racial injustice that was existence in the society, without inflating or deflating these facts.

The Maxim of Manner

The maxim of manner has also been exploited in the speech by Martin Luther king. This literary technique of speech writing demands that the speaker or the author of a speech delivers a clear, concise, and orderly speech to his audience (Bowe, 2007). This is done so as to ensure that there is no obscurity and vagueness in the speech for comprehension by the audience. In terms of clarity, Martin Luther king’s speech is understandable as he does not use complicated words in the delivery of his speech. Notably, his language is simple and straight to the point, and for that reason, the speech can be easily understandable by the audience and listeners. In relation to being concise, the speech can be termed as short and snappy. This is because the speaker doe not drown himself in unnecessary stories of racial inequality and the speech is a confirmation of the existence of racial injustice, and the need for a proper cause of action to end this in the society. Lastly, Martin Luther King’s speech is orderly in that the presentation of the speech is systematic and methodical. The speaker begins by inviting people to his event, then goes on to state the problems that exist in the society, after which, he states the actions to be taken for the achievement of a better future. This, in turn, allows the audience to understand the message being communicated in the speech.

The Maxim of Relation

The maxim of relation has also been used in the speech by martin Luther King. This is a literary technique, which demands that the speaker or author to remain relevant to the topic in his discussion of a subject matter (Bowe, 2007). Evidently, Martin Luther King ensures that the information he provides to his audience remains relevant to the topic being discussed. He does not go out of topic, and his discussion is primarily centered on the theme of freedom for the African American community. He neither engages the readers in other themes throughout his speech, nor speaks of other communities other than the African American community.


Bowe, H. J. & Martin, K. (2007). Communication Across Cultures: Mutual Understanding in a

Global World. London: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, D. (2001). Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage Publications.

Echols, J. (2004). I Have a dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and The Future of Multicultural

America. New York: Fortress Press.

King, M. L. (1963). “I Have a Dream”: Address Delivered at The Match for Washington For

Jobs and Freedom. Martin Luther King Junior Papers, Projects, and Seeches.

Smith, B. (1990). “Towards a History of Speech Act Theory”, in Speech Acts, Meaning, and

Intentions: Critical Approaches to the Philosophy of John R. Searle. By Burkhardt, A. Berlin: W. de Gruyter Publishers.

Appendices: Links to the Source Materials Used





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