Figures of speech
How words influence our thinking

The linguist Elisabeth Wehling
The linguist Elisabeth Wehling | Photo (detail): © Elisabeth Wehling

Does whether we talk about “refugees” or “people who have fled their homes” alter the discourse? The linguist Elisabeth Wehling studies how words and phrasing shape our thinking. She is engaged in research at the University of California, Berkeley, on the significance of language in political debates. 

Ms Wehling, you have been following the German discussion on the so-called refugee crisis from a distance in two senses: with the scientific detachment of a linguist and as an observer based in California. What is your perception of the way things are developing?

Initially, we had, in linguistic terms, an image that has been familiar to us as cognitive researchers for decades: migrants as a mass of water “streaming” into the country. That was still a fairly harmless image. But it constantly grew in intensity: wave of refugees, tsunami of refugees.
How do linguists avoid needlessly creating negative associations? Doesn’t an image like “wave of refugees” simply express the urgency of the situation, the need for swift remedial action?

The moment we turn refugees into masses of water, we are dehumanising them. We are denying them their individuality. That makes it more difficult to feel the sort of empathy on which the Human Rights Convention is based. Water masses are threatening. If your house is in danger of being flooded, you don’t think about the best way to spread the water across the different rooms; you seal yourself off, you pile up sandbags.

“Language is political framing“

Let’s think about the situation of a district administrator who in autumn 2015 faced the task of accommodating new refugees every day. Mustering all the resources at his disposal, he found shelter for every single one of them. But the next morning the same number of people were waiting in front of his office again. In a situation like that, doesn’t the image of a stream automatically suggest itself?

We can also use other metaphors, though, to convey the de facto situation. And there are many things about the image of the refugee stream that do not correspond to the facts. A streaming body of water is fed by a spring and won’t stop flowing. The Rhine can’t be stopped by holding talks with Switzerland. We could talk, for example, about “the crowds of people seeking protection”. Crowds are made up of people, like those in front of a department store. Language is political framing. The district administrator who prefers to talk about “crowds” ensures opportunities for human action.
You go beyond criticising ill-advised metaphors and discover worrying implications even in terms with no metaphorical content, even in the word “refugee” itself. Why do we need to think twice about using the term “refugees”?

People who come to us looking for protection do not as a rule come without a reason. They are fleeing from something. We can also call them “fleeing people” or “people who have fled their homes”. The former term emphasises that they are still in the process of fleeing. The term “people who have fled their homes” reminds us of the place they were forced to leave. The word “refugees” does not carry any association of what they are running away from, what they are fleeing from. Furthermore, the German word for refugee (der Flüchtling) does not allow gender distinction. The female form (die Flüchtlingin) may have still been used by Goethe, but it is no longer in current use. That’s not the case with words like “der Flüchtende” (the fleeing man/boy), “die Flüchtende“ (the fleeing woman/girl), “der Geflüchtete” (the man/boy who has fled) and “die Geflüchtete” (the woman/girl who has fled).

Ignoring the reason for fleeing

The German word “Flüchtling” (refugee) goes back a long way. The first two example sentences in the Grimm Dictionary are “Wir sind Flüchtlinge und bitten um ein Obdach”(We are refugees and ask for shelter) and “Ihr sollt dem Flüchtling Herberge geben“ (You should offer refuge to the refugee). If we emphasise that people are in the process of fleeing, in other words the processual and temporary nature of their situation, are we not thereby relativising the claims they have on us as people leading settled lives? People running from a house that is on fire are also “fleeing people”. Once such vulnerable people have found temporary shelter, they are no longer fleeing. Doesn’t the term “refugee” express the moral reality that suffering the fate of having to flee also defines someone as a person?

The term “refugee” is, of course, anchored in many cultural narratives. But The Left party chair Katja Kipping talks, for example, about “people who have fled their homes”. That phrase has a different effect. If you talk about “refugees”, you are at that moment ignoring their reason for fleeing, both linguistically and conceptually.
Is that true? People always flee from something. There’s no such thing as fleeing without a reason.

Reasons for fleeing may be human-induced or non-human-induced. After all, people also flee from natural disasters. If, on the other hand, we talk about “displaced persons”, we usually have a war scenario in mind, in other words political reasons. The idea of home is also conjured up.

Recommended reading

In February 2016, the linguist Elisabeth Wehling published her book “Politisches Framing: Wie eine Nation sich ihr Denken einredet – und daraus Politik macht“ (Political Framing: How Your Brain Turns Language into Politics) (edition medienpraxis 14). In it, the author explains in simple terms how language affects our thinking and actions and why it is essential to a healthy democratic discourse that we compare judgements made by society and politics based on prevailing frames – implicit patterns of interpretaition – with our own values.