175. The Language of Protesting (English Vocabulary Lesson)



English is the language of protesting across the world. Let’s learn the vocabulary and techniques you need to protest in English and understand why people take to the streets.



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Protests Around the World

Earlier this week, I released an episode on protests in Iran. Thousands of Iranians have taken to the street, unleashing their anger over the murder of a young women by the country’s morality police as well as decades of severe government policies.

As I was writing that episode, major protests and demonstrations erupted in Russia. After losing ground to Ukrainian forces over the past few months, President Putin has decided to call of Russia’s reserve forces. Hundreds of Russians have been arrested for protesting against the move: and videos show men from regions like Dagestan being forced onto buses as Russia aims to recruit up to 1 million new soldiers.

Protests over the situation in Iran

Protests are everywhere and happen all the time. They are an essential part of democracy and allow people to communicate their anger, displeasure, opinions, and ideas to the country’s leaders. I put the word “protest” into the Google news tab today – as well as results concerning Iran and Russia, I found an Al Jazeera article on Tunisian protests over inflation and a France 24 article on protests in Colombia against new tax reforms. I’ve recorded episodes on protests in Myanmar and Belarus, and on environmental protests in the UK.

Every day, and in every country, protests occur for different reasons. Demonstrations against human rights violations and authoritarian governments. Protests over the environment, tax increases, or police brutality. Protests can occur for social, political, economic, and cultural reasons.


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English and Protesting

As previously mentioned, I have written about a lot of protests around the world and read about even more. And one thing has always stood out to me – the use of the English language. English is everywhere in demonstrations and marches: the slogans, the signs, and the statements released often use English.

Images from the 2021 demonstrations in Myanmar show demonstrators carrying signs that say, “We want democracy” and “Ur help can support our Myanmar Citizens.” Only 5% of people in Myanmar can speak English and the country is regularly ranked as one the lowest English language ability places in the world. Despite this, the protestors used English to make their signs.

English is the international language. It is the language used when you want to spread your message to the international community. If you want people and government around the world to hear your words and understand your message, you need to use English.

I read a really interesting opinion article from the South China Morning Post a few years ago. It was a letter from a Hong Kong citizen suggesting Hong Kong citizens need to be more confident in using English to explain their thoughts and opinions on the pro-democracy protests that were happening at the time. The writer argued that it is so important for local people to be the voice of their own issues. And they need to use English to be as effective as possible.

Considering how important English is to protesters, I decided to talk to you all about protest English. After introducing some of the key vocabulary around protests which will help you understand English language reports, I’ll talk a little about persuasive writing and speaking – an essential skill for any demonstrator.

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Protest Vocabulary

Let’s start at the beginning with vocabulary. A protest is a “statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something.” Protests can take many forms: from peaceful letter writing, to marches and rallies, to violent riots and looting.

Alternatively, the noun demonstration can be used as a synonym for protest. When I was a student, I often attended demonstrations over university price increases and human rights issues. Demonstration can be, and often is, shortened to demo.

A march is a form of public protest or demonstration, where people walk together to highlight their cause. You can go on a march – as in I’m going on a environmental march this weekend. March also has verb form – we often use the phrase march on when a march is deliberately walking towards somewhere. For example, we marched on the parliament to demand the presidents resignation.

A person who attended a protest or demonstration can be described as a protester or demonstrator. Right now, there are millions of protesters and demonstrators around the world trying to express their opinions.

Both protest and demonstration have verb forms as well. Iranians are currently protesting over the death of a young women. And, thousands of Russians have been arrested for demonstrating against the policy of conscription. For those of you who love English grammar, in US English the verb protest is often used transitively – He protested the decision, or they protested the new law. And you might also hear the phrase take to the streets. This is often used in media and news reports – as in People took to the streets in response to the war.

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If you are organising a protest or demonstration, you might also want to know the verbs to do so. You can hold or stage a protest; and hold or stage a demonstration. For example, we are holding a demonstration this Friday, or they staged a protest against the government cuts. If an event causes a protest, we can use the verbs spark and trigger ­– police brutality triggered large protests across the country and the new law sparked demonstrations.

Most protests are peaceful or non-violent. This means that they cause no damage to people or property. If the opposite happens, it is usually described as violent or angry. Last year, angry protests erupted across the USA in response to police brutality. If a protest starts to become violent or uncontrollable, it may develop into a riot. A riot is a “violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.” You can also use riot as a verb – Football fans rioted after their team lost.  

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

How about the vocabulary for the different tactics used by protesters? You will often see people carrying placards and banners. A placard is a sign for public display, which is often large and handwritten, and carried during a protest. Banners are much longer pieces of material. But both placards and banners are used to display messages or demands.

If you ever see a protest march, you will probably hear them chanting. Chant can be used as both a noun and verb, and refers to a phrase that is repeatedly shouted. Protestors in London chanted “Boris Johnson Out” in front of his house. And to make their voices louder and easier to hear, demonstrators may use a megaphone.

In London a few years ago, the Extinction Rebellion blocked roads and train lines to demonstrate their beliefs. This is a common tactic – blocking a road causes disturbances by stopping access. I attended a quite radical university during my master’s degree (SOAS, University of London if you are interested). One of the favourite tactics used by university students is occupying a space. If you occupy a building it means to you move in and take control of it. I remember students occupying the university library to protest a reduction in the number of librarians.

Other tactics can include sit-ins (where you sit somewhere and refuse to leave);  boycotts (where you refuse to be associated with something, buy a product, or use a service); candlelight vigils (where you remember or commemorate a tragedy at night); egging (where you throw eggs at a person); hunger strikes (when a person refuses to eat); and picketing (where you stand outside a workplace as a protest and strike).

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How to Communicate Your Message Effectively

Now you know the English vocabulary to describe and talk about protesting, I think it would be good to briefly introduce a few tactics to help you use English to demonstrate. Many of you will take to the streets at some point in your life; and most of you will protest something in private or on social media. And if you want your message to be heard by as many people as possible, you need to use English.

Persuasive English

When protesting against something, you need to use persuasive language. Either you want to persuade the government to change their minds, a company to be more responsible, or the international community to support your cause. How can you do this?

  • If you are delivering a speech in English, use short words and short sentences. You want to sound natural and confident – so using simple language can make it much easier for you to read and for the audience to understand you!
  • Tell a story. Whether you are sending messages to people online, writing letters, giving speeches, or something else – try to tell a story. A good story can be a lot more powerful than facts and statistics. And use examples that will highlight the issue. For example, rather than giving facts about climate change, use stories about the destruction caused by climate change.  
  • Be concise. When speaking, writing, messaging people – don’t take a long time to explain your issue.
  • Give your own personal opinion – you can say something like in my view or from my perspective
  • Hyperbole (exaggeration) – obviously you shouldn’t lie, but you can exaggerate your language to make your message more powerful.
  • Personal Pronouns – Using I, you, and we can help you connect to your audience.
  • The Rule of Three – in English, it is common to use three points to make an argument, three adjective to describe a situation, and three examples to convince an audience… I just used the rule of three
  • Emotive Language – this is used to make the listener, reader, and audience feel a particular emotion. If talking about the environment, you might want people to scared. When protesting the government, you probably want people to be angry. And you can do this by choosing certain words.
  • Rhetorical questions – these are questions that you ask, but don’t need to be answered because the answer is obvious. Who doesn’t want freedom?

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Banners and Signs

So now I’ve talked about persuasive language, I want to end on a little advice for writing a sign, placard, or banner in English! Look at any protest around the world – you will see signs written in English. How can you write an excellent message?

The first thing is to decide what you want to say. There may be hundreds of different things you want to say about the issue, but you need to just choose one important message per sign. Don’t try to cram every idea into one sign.

Once you have your message, you need to decide what to write. The key is brevity – or shortness. When writing in English – make it short and clear. A statement of less than 7 words is usually the most effective. This may seem too short, but it is the most powerful way.

Photo by Shane Aldendorff on Pexels.com

For example, if you are attending a women’s rights protest for pay equality… you could write “Equal pay for equal work.” If you are attending an environmental protest, something like “climate justice now” is a powerful slogan. You can also make the message personal – relate it to your identity, experience, or own opinions.

You could take a famous saying or slogan that already exists and parody it. Donald Trump’s poster from his election was his face with the word “hope” written underneath. If you attend an anti-Trump protest, you’ll probably see a similar sign with the word “grope” instead of hope.

You could make your sign rhyme or use a pun. Use the words and vocabulary used by your “enemy” against them. Swear, curse, and use bad language – it makes your language more powerful.

Do whatever you can to make people read your sign, understand it, and remember it!

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Final Thought

English is the language of protest all around the world. To spread your message and opinions, using English is the most effective tool to communicate with people. And with major protests in Iran and Russia this week, as well as demonstrations happening in every city almost every day, it is useful to practice protest English.

Today, I tried to introduce some of the most important vocabulary about protests, and then gave some tips on how to use English to communicate your messages.

What do you think? Have you ever attended a protest? What was the last major protest in your country?

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