Judith Willis, former Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in ELT at Oxford University Press, looks at common themes in the language of acceptance speeches.
If you’ve ever had a nightmare about standing tongue-tied on stage grappling for words, you may find it instructive – and consoling – to study what the winners of major film awards say when they pick up the accolade. Analysis of recent acceptance speeches reveals the key features of the genre.
The stars are urged to keep their speeches brief – the average length is just 187 words and on the whole they’re getting shorter. As the main purpose is to express gratitude, the word thank is unsurprisingly the runaway winner occurring on average nearly 6 times per speech, with Thank you, thank you so much a common phrase:
Thank you, thank you so much. […] Thank you so much, the Academy, what an honor.
This quote illustrates the popular rhetorical device of repeating words to emphasize the message. Some speakers, maybe aware of over-reliance on a single word, display a touch of irony:
There are […] thousands of people to thank, so thankfully I’m not going to thank them now.
Unfortunately, award-winners don’t consult a thesaurus – occurrences of gratitude and grateful are fairly sparse, but there are a few instances of shout-out as in:
A big shout-out to Monty Norman and the late John Barry for that iconic theme.
The object of these outpourings are the awarding body, the fellow nominees (a term used predominantly by American English speakers, echoing the presidential my fellow Americans/citizens), the director – sometimes spoken of in nautical terms as our beloved skipper or our visionary captain, the cast, crew and team, and, of course, the speaker’s entire family. All of the above are frequently assured of the speaker’s love, especially at the Oscars:
And to our kids […]. I love you guys.
Along with the thanks often comes surprise – favourite exclamations are wow, oh my, etc:
Oh my, oh my God. Oh wow really, […] truly wow. / Oh boy. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this.
The top adjectives used to describe the honour, emotions, etc. are, in order of frequency: wonderful, incredible, amazing, brilliant, extraordinary and fantastic, sometimes preceded by the intensifiers really, absolutely and truly.
Film or movie? This clearly depends in part on who the individual award-winners are: the BAFTAs show a strong and consistent preference for film over movie, but, as has been pointed out elsewhere, the Oscars are undergoing a shift from film to movie with movie staying ahead of film at the 2013 ceremony, continuing a trend that started in 2012.
Speeches may be structured with the use of phrases such as first of all, first and foremost, matched by last but not least or finally:
And then finally, finally – okay, I am really getting there – finally, finally,…
To use a favourite end-of-speech phrasal verb, let’s wrap up this post with some interesting language from Quentin Tarantino’s acceptance speech at the 2013 BAFTAs:
I want to thank my actors for doing a bang-up job with my dialogue […] this was a pretty hot potato script […]
… for them to actually do it, pony up a lot of money to do it, and do it the right way…
… and the more telegraphic style of the conclusion to his 2013 Oscar speech:
You guys are all wonderful. Peace out.
Data for this blog is drawn from BAFTA winners’ acceptance speeches from 2011-2013 and Academy Awards® winners’ onstage speeches from 2010-2013.