Last Updated 31 Jan 2023

Analysis Letter from Birmingham Jail by MLK

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The difference between the denotative and connotative and meaning of the words is based on the context surrounding them. Martin Luther King uses words in the letter that have strong connotations to express his discontent/disagreement with what is going on in Birmingham and to connect emotionally with the audience of the letter. An example of this is when he describes his situation and setting by questioning “...what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”. He chose these words to show how agonizing his stay in the jail is, especially since he believes he does not belong in jail in the first place.

Another example would be when he states that 'Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.' The words he used in the sentence that have negative connotations, such as 'distort,' 'degrades,' and 'damages' are used to further convey the effect that segregation has on the human mind and soul. Another example includes when he uses connotative words in the following paragraph: 'But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters.'

The words vicious, hate-filled, curse, kick, and kill, evoke feelings of empathy and compassion from the reader. Another example is in the paragraph where he talks about the word “extremist”: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist... the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” The denotative meaning of the word “extremist” is “a person who holds extreme or fanatical political or religious views, especially one who resorts to or advocates extreme action.” Connotatively, we have negative associations with the word. Some may even say it is synonymous with the word “terrorist”. Martin Luther King, however, changes the connotation of the word as used in the text by labeling Jesus Christ an extremist for love.

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Martin Luther King uses concrete words and examples to explain his abstract ideas/concepts. When he states that he is in Birmingham due to the “injustice” that is present, the word injustice is abstract. Examples he provides of the injustice that is present in Birmingham are concrete, such as the store leaders’ humiliating racial signs or the way the Birmingham police pushed and cursed old Negro men and young Negro girls. When he states that Birmingham is corrupt and unjust in their laws, the word “corrupt/unjust” is abstract. He gives a concrete example of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Hungarian Freedom fighters to support his idea of just and unjust laws. The concept he brings of “just and unjust laws” is abstract. He uses concrete examples when he states in the paragraph exactly what is considered just and unjust. “Let us consider a more concrete example...be considered democratically structured?”

The words MLK uses in the letter are mostly formal. He chooses to use formal language in order to deliver his message to the clergymen without appearing uneducated or offensive. His level of formality strengthens his argument since it does not give the clergymen an opportunity to deem him unorganized or unprofessional. Formal introductory phrases are seen when he introduces his claims and rebuttals to the clergymen’s criticisms.

Examples of formal words/phrases that MLK uses can be seen throughout the letter, including the following: “query”, “lamentably”, “bewildering”, “...compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond…”, “deplore”, “cognizant”, “unduly”, “...inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”, “seldom”, “was not”, “laxity”, “Let us consider a more concrete example…”, “Perhaps I have once again…”, etc. These words/phrases are not often used in ordinary conversation (colloquial) and have been chosen due to their level of formality. There are phrases he could have easily shortened into simple language but chose not to in order to demonstrate his knowledge and vast vocabulary. For example, instead of saying that he is “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states”, he could have succinctly said that he is aware of how all communities are tied together.

The last paragraph of the letter is also very formal, where he says “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth... I beg God to forgive me.” MLK also avoids using contractions in the letter, such as when he writes out “cannot” instead of writing “can’t”. He uses informal language when he writes in first person pronouns such as “I” or “We”. He likely uses “We” to try to personally connect with the clergymen the same way he uses the word “fellow”. He also uses the pronoun “We” to refer to him and the Negro community. This can be seen in the paragraph where he repeatedly uses “We” to refer to the Negro community. “We will reach the goal of freedom...we were here...our forebears labored...we now face...We will win our freedom…” He uses “I” to defend the concepts that the clergymen condemned or to directly address his concerns/beliefs. An example of this is when he says “I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners... in the midst of great provocation.” Since he is writing a letter as a response to his criticisms, and not a speech, he uses first person pronouns.

The old-fashioned words that MLK chooses to use reveal that he is old in age. He does not use much slang/colloquialisms/trendy words and stays at a high level of formality. Professional writers do not commonly incorporate slang terms unless it relates to the audience. MLK incorporates several biblical references to relate to the audience, which consists of clergymen. These biblical references can help the reader infer that the author is of old age. Most teens and adolescents are unlikely to have the knowledge to be able to make biblical references/allusions. The use of the word “Negro” helps the reader infer the time period in which the letter was written. “Negro” was most commonly used to describe African Americans around mid 1900s in the United States.

The words exhibited in the letter are of standard language that can be understood universally. As previously stated, since MLK uses formal language and does not use colloquialisms, there is not much regional dialect. He might have tried to avoid words of regional dialect in order to appeal more to his audience; him and the clergymen most likely do not speak in the same dialect due to differences in social groups and regions.

Depending on which part of the letter we are analyzing, the words in the letter are both euphonious and cacophonous. When MLK attempts to convey the unfair treatment that the Negro community has received, he uses cacophonous words, such as “humiliating”, “grossly”, “unjust”, “painful”, “disease”, “nobodiness”, “ominous”, “poverty”, “smothering”, “shattered”, “lynch”, “vicious”, “distort”, “inhumane”, and “damaged”. He uses harsh words to convey the harsh treatment African Americans receive. MLK uses euphonious words when he attempts to address the clergymen with respect and when he tries to conclude the letter in an optimistic tone. Examples of this include the words/phrases “fellow”, “radiant stars of love and brotherhood’, “scintillating beauty”, “honor”, “freedom”, “spiritual blessings”, etc. He uses pleasant sounding words to make his audience feel respected and to describe a pleasant future without the burdens of oppression.

MLK uses both monosyllabic and polysyllabic words throughout the letter, but more often polysyllabic than monosyllabic. People generally associate polysyllabic words to be used by intelligent people with advanced ranges of vocabulary, so MLK most likely used polysyllabic words to prove to the clergymen that he is highly literate. Examples of polysyllabic words used in the letter include “scintillating”, “disinherited”, “formulation”, “profundity”, “nonconformists”, “gladiatorial”, “precipitate”, “cognizant”, “lamentably”, “laxity”, and more. Most of the monosyllabic words he uses in the letter are pronouns or articles and are not descriptive, such as “the” or “his”. The only reason he may use monosyllabic words is to emphasize an argument he is trying to get across. He uses the word “wait”, which is monosyllabic, repetitively, to add emphasis to the point he is trying to make about not being able to wait any longer. He may also use monosyllabic words to help his writing “flow” more and sound more poetic.

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