A Lexico-Semantics Study of Dr Martin Luther King’s Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 10th December 1964

Cite this article as: James, A., Ojo, O., Pane, A.Y., Lagan, B.S. & Songdena, J. (2023). Lexico-Semantics Study of Dr Martin Luther King’s Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 10th December 1964. Zamfara International Journal of Humanities, (2)3, 50-57. www.doi.org/10.36349/zamijoh.2023.v02i03.006.

A Lexico-Semantics Study of Dr Martin Luther King’s Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 10th December 1964


1Anthony, JAMES., 2Onome, OJO., 3Altine, Yakubu PANE., 4Blessing Saina’an LAGAN., 5Rejoice, James SONGDEN

1. Department of English, Plateau State University, Bokkos. Oghorjames50@yahoo.com 08034501913

2. Department of English, University of Jos, Plateau State. Onomski2207@yahoo.com 08036059862

3. Department of English Language and Literary Studies, Federal University Kashere. alteenay@gmail.com 08035118584

4. Department of English, Plateau State University, Bokkos. blessinglagan@gmail.com 08036027196

5. Department of English, University of Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria. songdenrejoice@gmail.com 08035971213


This study carried out a lexical-semantic study of Dr Martin Luther King’s Jr. Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on 10th December 1964. The investigation discovered that there are various lexical-semantic theories that must be applied to the interpretation of meaning in a given text. In this case, the Principles of Recursiveness, Composition, Relevance, Informativeness, Scalar-Implicature, Function and Denotation were used to analyse the speech to ascertain the rhetorical power of the speech and how the fluency of meaning was achieved by the speaker (Dr Martin Luther King Jr) choice of words. The study discovered that the speaker did not only carefully choose his words to meet the standard of the above-laid principles, but at the same time ensured that these semantic theories enhanced the effectiveness of the speech. These facts were revealed in the study. This is why “words” form the thread on which we string our experiences Aldous Huxley (1937).

Keywords: Civil Rights Movement, Lexical-Semantic, Nobel Peace Prize, Speech, Study


This study aims to explore some intricacies involved in understanding how the meaning of sentence components; words and their arrangement in a syntactic structure impact meaning. Consequently, the study investigates how words are structurally blended to make meaning. This is because syntactic structures determine sentence meaning. Linguistically, meaning is broadly divided into two major domains, semantics and pragmatics. Semantics deals with the literal meaning of words and the meaning of the way they are combined, which taken together form the core of meaning or the starting point from which the whole meaning of a particular utterance is constructed (kearns 2011). Since this study is a matrix of both Semantics and Lexis, it is relevant to state that Lexis is the study of the meaning of individual words. It is an investigation into words and their meanings, how words relate to one another, and how they combine.

The speech explains is that words are not mere symbols but conduit pipes that carry messages from one point to the other. In doing so, they are syntactically structured to meet a defined purpose. This highlights the statement of Goldman, who distinguishes between “understanding and explanation.” The former involves interpretation … in terms of their context and structural composition. Explanation, on the other hand, consists in situating … the wider structures in which they originate and which they express … (1969). What Goldman infers, is that words are structurally composed to give situational or contextual meanings. The aim of this study therefore is to attempt to unravel the meanings inherent in Martin Luther King’s Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 1964, paying particular interest to the Lexical and Semantic rules common with the text.

Statement of the Problem

The Lexical and Semantic analysis of any text, speech, or language must explain how words, phrases or sentences are understood, interpreted and related to societies, processes and objects in the universe. This is because linguists see lexis and semantics as the study of meaning that is communicated through language. This narrates why Ferdinand de Saussure asserts that language is form, not substance (1916), it becomes very important to state that Saussure agrees plainly that linguistics is exclusively a science of forms. Thus, Lexically and Semantically Saussure introduces the terminology of the ‘sign’ (a single word) as constituted by an inseparable union of ‘signifier’ (the speech sounds or written marks composing the sign) and ‘signified’ (the conceptual meaning of the sign). What this means is that words are used in a text or speech to make meaning. Charlie, further collaborates this fact, when he says:

Lexical semantics is a subfield of linguistic semantics. It is the study of how and what the words of a language denote… Words may either be taken to denote things in the world or concepts, depending on the particular approach to lexical semantics. The units of meaning in lexical semantics are lexical units, which a speaker can continually add to throughout their life, learning new words and their meanings…. Lexical semantics covers theories of the classification and decomposition of word meaning, the differences and similarities in lexical semantic structure between different languages, and the relationship of word meaning to sentence meaning and syntax. One question that lexical semantics explores is whether the meaning of a lexical unit is established by looking at its neighbourhood in the semantic net (by looking at the other words it occurs within natural sentences), or if the meaning is already locally contained in the lexical unit (2011).

What this implies, is that meanings are depended on various factors ranging from structural to context. The question to ask therefore, is how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made meaning in his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech on December 10th 1964, and this becomes the framework of the study.


Words are conduit pipes because they are carriers of messages, information and communication. Because each time a person speaks, he uses a tool of words to pass across his message. The objective of this study, therefore, is to determine how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. crafted his words when he was delivering his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech in 1964. In doing this, the speech will be subjected to some Lexico-Semantic principles to ascertain how effective the speech was delivered. This is because reading or listening to a speech should be a conversation between two parties (Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren 1972).

Literature Review and Conceptual Clarifications

Lexis: Lexis deals with the study of the vocabulary of languages in all its ramifications. How words relate to one another and their meanings. How they are infused in a syntactic structure to generate meanings. Halliday considers lexis as patterns in language and suggests that it might be helpful to devise methods appropriate to the description of these patterns in the light of a lexical theory that will be complementary to, but not part of, grammatical theory. In other words, the suggestion is that lexis may be a useful thought of (a) within the linguistic form, and thus standing in the same to (lexical) semantics as does grammar to (grammatical) semantics, and as (b) not within grammar lexical patterns thus being treated as different, and not merely in delicacy, from grammatical patterns. In the summary of Gleason (1975), “Perhaps what we have blithely called (lexis) is after all a residuum of unanalyzed Material out of what there remains to be sorted a system or even several Systems of diverse types”


Semantics helps an individual to examine the meaning of words, phrases and sentences. The investigation of semantic analysis is aimed at discovering what words conventionally mean, than what a speaker might want the word to mean at a particular time. Charlie (2011) simply puts it as “semantics is about the interpretation of an expression… It focuses on the relation between signifiers such as words, phrases, science and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotata.” In a similar vein, “semantics shows how people communicate meanings with pieces of language” (Saeed 2006). Semantics studies the properties of natural languages because its major aim is to look at how words are synthesised to communicate a given message or piece of information. This is why the generativists are of the view that the demonstration of the crucial role of deep structure relations for understanding semantic relations leads to the crucial proposal that deep structure should contain all the information necessary for the semantic interpretation of a sentence. This formalizes the requirement that the output of the syntactic component should provide a basis for the native speaker's awareness of semantic relationships (Greene 1972).

 Metaphor of Semantic Web

The role of language is closely related to the demand society places on it, and the function it has to serve. This is because, society, through the help of language builds concepts in their mental space. These concepts are in turn used to express our thoughts and feelings about our world views. Most times these usages are psychologically based because these concepts are inherently built in the minds of the people. In the words of Harley:

A more psychologically revealing approach adopts the metaphor of the semantic web. Concepts are parts of our mental space. Two, parts, like a jockey and a horse, are connected in the web if some other concept defines the characteristics relationship between them (2006).

In Harley’s narrative above, she highlights the fact that words are in schema relationships that show their dependence on one another, because meaning is a wholistic phenomenon that is drawn from syntactic structures. In corroborating this fact Smith says:

When we hear or read language, we don’t find the meaning by just “looking up the words” in a mental “dictionary of the real world” and stringing word meaning together to find the meaning (and truth value) of the whole. Rather, to understand or find the meaning of what we hear or read, we draw on our relevant knowledge about what individual words and expressions may mean, the contexts in which we have experienced their use or which have been similar in terms of sensory, emotive, or other experience (1988).

Theoretical Framework

This study is anchored on Pierce's (1839-1914) foundational theory of signs and semiotics. A sign according to him or representation is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. Everything is a sign. The universe is one great representation. He went further to state that, ‘all thought is in signs’, he wrote. Thinking is one manipulation of signs. Any semiotic process is a relation among three components: the sign itself, the object represented and the interpretant. ‘The sign’, wrote Pierce:

Addresses somebody, that is, it creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates is called the interpretant of the first sign. This stands for something, its object, not in all respects, but about sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representation.

This relation is called ‘triad’. A meaning is never a relation between a sign and what the sign signifies (its object), but rather the result of the triadic relation in which the interpretant plays the mediating role of informing, interpreting or translating one sign into another. According to Pierce, there are three types of signs: the icon, the index and the symbol. The first resembles its object like a model or a map. It would be a sign even if its object did not exist, just as a pencil line represents a geometric line, the index is a sign that would immediately lose its nature as a sign if its objects were removed, but it will remain a sign even if it had no interpretant. An example might be a plate bearing the impact of a bullet as a sign of a shot having been fired. Without the shot, there would have been no impact. But there is, in fact, an impact whether or not someone thinks of attributing it to a shot. The symbol is a sign conventionally associated with its objects, such as words or traffic signals. It would lose its character as a sign if it did not have an interpretant. From this standpoint, thought or knowledge is a network of signs capable of producing itself ad infinitum. Pierce's argument suggests the fact that words, signs and symbols are a celebration of man’s creative power which God has sculptured to enhance societal discourse and events. Since they give meaning to messages and communication.


The primary data for this study is Martin Luther King’s Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech on December 10th 1964. It is a known fact that the American Public Landscape has produced many great leaders with oratorical influence. One such American leader was the then Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of December 10th 1964 was adjudged as one of the most grandiloquent of all his speeches. This study, therefore, examines how the syntactic structures of the text (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 10th Dec. 1964) add up to make meaning in the minds of the listeners or readers of the text; because the speech was composed of words. As Edward Sapir notes, it is no good simply using a semantic definition as a basis, since across languages speakers package, meaning into words in different ways:

Our first impulse, no doubt, would have been to define the word as the symbolic, linguistic counterpart of a single concept. We now know that such a definition is impossible. In truth, it is impossible to define the word from a functional standpoint at all, for the word may be anything from the expression of a single concept or abstract or purely relational (as in of a or by or and) – to the expression of a complete thought (as in Latin dico ‘I say’ or, with greater elaborateness of form, as in Notka verb form denoting ‘I have been accustomed to eat twenty round objects [e.g., apples] while engaged in [doing so and so]’). In the latter case, the word becomes identical with the sentence. A word is merely a form, a moulded entirely that takes in as much or as little of the conceptual material of the whole thought as the genius of the language cares to allow (1949).

 Text Analysis

 The use of Recursive Sentences

I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative of the battle to end the long night of racial injustice.

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle: to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

The examples are examples of recursiveness, recursion is usually used by speakers to lengthen sentences by adding to it. The principle is that any sentence can be used to form a new sentence by using a recursive addition so that the number of sentences is infinite. If we carefully examine the first example above; the sentence could be split into the following:

i.           I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace

ii.         At a moment when 22 million Negroes in the United States of American are engaged

iii.      In a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice

From the above, it shows that the sentence had been split into three parts, to show that the sentence could as well be spoken in three parts, but such would have made the ‘thought flow’ monotonous, unappealing, making the speech uninteresting. However, recursion helps orators like (Luther King Jr.) to give their thoughts a single flow which enhances compositionality, which is a lexical-semantic technique.


In semantics, meaning can be adjudged as compositional, in that the meaning of a sentence is determined by the composition of the form of its parts: the meanings of the words in it and the way they are ordered into phrases. Compositional semantic theories believe that syntax and semantics work in parallel. For each phrase structure rule that combines two expressions into a larger phrase, there is a corresponding semantic rule which combines the meanings of the parts into the meaning of the newly formed expressions. So, if we examine the second sentence above:

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered (A)

and committed to unrelenting struggle: (B)

to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the of the Nobel Prize (C)

Using the theory of composition, we discovered that the orator (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) builds clause B, into A, and C, into B, and they all added up into A. The building of these clauses into the other, allows the speaker to communicate and transmit his message accurately and perfectly to his audience.

Let us go further to use other semantic theories and principles to ascertain the qualities of other sentences in the text:

 The Principle of Relevance

This principle states that what the speaker says should be relevant to the current concerns of the communicators. Conversely, the hearer should assume that what the speaker says is currently relevant and draw inferences accordingly. Let us now analyze one of the sentences in the text:

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial, political and moral questions of our time. Therefore, following the rules of relevance, is the speech or clause above relevant to the communicators? That is, both to the speaker and listeners:

We could say yes, that the speech or sentence is relevant to the context and situation at that time, 10th December 1964. It was during the award of the Nobel Peace Prize which was a result of the Civil Rights Movement | It stands on nonviolence for an egalitarian and free racial American society, and Dr. King was the leader at this time. Does the clause capture the relevance of the context? We could affirm, to say yes, because addressees cannot prove the relevance of the utterances, they hear without taking context into account:

The speaker must make some assumptions about the hearers’ cognitive    abilities and contextual resources, which will necessarily be reflected in the way he communicates, and in particular in what he chooses to make explicit or what he chooses to leave implicit. (Sperber and Wilson, 1995).

Consequently, the orator, (Dr King) was able to use the context of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to highlight the ongoing struggle of the movement at that time and the effect of the struggle on American society and the world at large.

 The Principle of Informativeness

The principle of Informativeness has two clauses: (1) Give as much information as required and (2) Do not give more information than is required. Informativeness is usually described as having rather general outcomes, in that it licenses the speaker to make a statement that requires inferencing to produce the full intended message. Correspondingly, the hearer assumes that the speaker has not directly stated whatever is easily filled in by inference, and so draws the required inferences. Let us use another clause in the text to analyze this principle:

Today I come to Oslo as a trustee, inspired and with renewed Dedication to humanity. Using the principle of informativeness to adjudge the above clause that could be split; Today I come to Oslo as a trustee How informative is the above clause to the context, which can be easily interpreted thus; Today I come to Oslo as the leader of the

Civil Rights movement or I am in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Award as The leader of the CRM. We could say that this clause meets the two principles of informativeness; because it gave precise information by informing his audience that he is the head of the CRM is highlighted by the word ‘Trustee.

Secondly, the information is not more than that that is required because Dr. King introduces himself as the leader of the CRM using the word ‘Trustee’The second part of the sentence also meets the requirements of the principle. That is; first, it gives the right information as required, because Dr. King informs his audience that he is encouraged because of the award to do more for the CRM and humanity. It does not give more than required, because he simply, informs the audience that he is his committed to do more.

The idea is that informativeness is the basis for what is called scalar implicature. Scalar implicature typically arises with expressions denoting qualities or degrees of attributes which can be graded on some scale of informative weakness or strength. Using the scalar implicature to analyze one of the clauses ‘today I come to Oslo as a trustee Implicature:

 a. He is in Oslo as the leader of the CRM

  b. No one else is in Oslo as the leader but him.

The entailment of the statement is that Dr King was in Oslo to receive the award as the leader of the CRM and not any other person. If we go back to the theory of Composition, we will realise that statements in general can be imagined to be split up into two parts, one complete in itself and the other in need of supplementation, or ‘unsaturated.’ So, the clause: today I come to Oslo as a trustee, which can be split; Today I and come to Oslo as a trustee

The second part: come to Oslo as a trustee this part is ‘unsaturated’ – it contains a space or place, which is filled up with a proper noun, or with an expression that replaces a proper name does a complete sense. Here, we give the name ‘function’ to what is ‘unsaturated’, part stands for. In this case, the argument is ‘I’ (1819\1988).

Another way of looking at functions (and predicates) is to say that a function binds an argument together into a statement. So, the predicate: ‘Come to Oslo as a trustee’ Can only be bound as an argument when the pronoun ‘I’ is added to the clause at the subject level: ‘I came to Oslo as a trustee’

Frege (1980), proposed that all semantic composition is functional application. A functional application is just the combination of a function with an argument. This is why the function-argument bond is the ‘glue’ that holds complex meanings together; because semantic composition proceeds by combining two expressions, A and B where A is a function of B is its argument. Another important fact to note is that combination is taken to be binary, in that only two expressions are combined in each operation. In syntactic terms, this means that every node in a tree diagram has no more than two daughter nodes:

A Lexico-Semantics Study of Dr Martin Luther King’s Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 10th December 1964

A Lexico-Semantics Study of Dr Martin Luther King’s Jr. Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of 10th December 1964

Truth Conditional theories of meaning


One major factor about language is the meaningfulness of language amounts to its ‘aboutness’. Words and expressions symbolize and describe – and are thus about things and phenomena in the world around us, and this is why we can use language to convey information and reality. Accordingly, the meaningfulness of Language consists of its connections between words and expressions and parts of reality. The part of reality a linguistic expression is connected with is the expression denotation. This is because a name has the thing it refers to as denotation. And in the concluding part of this speech, we have some examples, at the end of the speech;

Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible – the Known pilots and the unknown ground crew.

So, you honour the dedicated pilots of our struggle who have sat at the controls as the freedom movement soared into orbit.

Most of these people will never make the headline and their names will not appear in Who’s Who.

Peace is more precious than diamonds silver or gold.

I think Alfred Nobel would know what I mean when I say that I accept this award in the spirit of being the curator of some precious heirloom which he holds in trust for its true owners- all those to whom beauty is truth and true beauty.

 The underlined words are examples of metaphorical categories. This is why Lakoff (1987) stresses the use of such metaphors in our category systems, and through them the ways we make meaning and develop our knowledge of the world. We develop our initial category systems from the way we experience the world, but according to him, experience does not come to us in neatly pre-packaged form; we impose meaning upon it in terms of our earliest bodily experience. For Lakoff:

Meaning is not a thing. It involves what is meaningful to us. Nothing is meaningful in itself. Meaningfulness derives from the experience of functioning as a being of a certain sort in an environment of a certain sort (1987). He further states that, the important thing about our category systems is that they are the result of our imaginative minds operating within real bodies using metaphors enabling us to see connections and build our understanding of the world (Lakoff 1987). So, these underlined words are not just denotations but metaphorical categories that exist in the imaginative minds of Martin Luther King’s Jr which helped him to connect with his listeners, audience or readers. These words denote what they mean in their natural entity, in this context they speak volumes beyond their denotative meanings; they have been used metaphorically to explain King’s desire and belief in the CRM for racial equality in the United States. For instance, if we take some of the words that are underlined above and analyse them in the context of the speech, we might establish other meanings apart from their denotative properties; journey, flight, orbit, headline, who’s who, peace, diamonds, silver, gold, curator, etc.


Dictionary meaning

Metaphoric meaning


The journey made by air



Act of travelling from one place to another

The struggle, the Civil Rights Movement


The person who operates, and controls an aircraft

The leaders of the struggle (the Civil right Movement)

Unknown ground crew

The people of an airport whose job is to take care of aircraft while they are on the ground

Members of the struggle (The Civil Rights Movement) are unknown yet, they contributed as much as the leaders effectively to the struggle.


The power to make decisions

The leaders of the movement (Civil Rights Movement)


An area that a particular person, organisation etc. deals with

The role and the struggle of the movement (CRM) thus far.



Not heard of, not noticed, seemingly unimportant


No war, no violence

Achievement, success etc.


Precious, jewel

Inequality, racism,


Coins, dishes

Inequality, racism


Money, jewellery

Inequality, racism.


 The table has revealed the fact that these words are used by the speaker to dot the speech with emotive rhetorical power to drive his message of equality that exist in the United States at this period in time.

 What King has done through this technique is to ensure that both the listener and reader of the speech continue to read or listen to the speech by processing information contained in the words, phrases and sentences to make meaning of each sentence. With this rhetorical device, King can bring to the fore his main message which he deliberately withholds, by modifying the internal structure of the sentences through his positioning of the units of his words in order of significance and preference. This style helps the speaker (Dr Martin Luther King Jr) to heighten the emotion of his audience and gain global acceptance for the Civil Rights Movement. This is so because lexically and semantically, he has been able to accurately merge words, phrases and clauses to pad, modify or enlarge his discourse units for the right message.


 This study has successfully highlighted some of the salient theories and principles common with lexical semantics and related them to the Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech of Dr Martin Luther King Jr on 10th December 1964. In the cause of our investigation, the study was able to ascertain the fact that words, phrases, clauses and sentences are the carriers of meanings. Most importantly, some of these theories were applied to the various phases of the speech to verify how they have been used by the speaker to pass his message across to his audience or listeners. Consequently, it was realised that lexical semantics is a web of principles whose meaning is better appreciated when juxtaposed with both syntactic structures and context.


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