How the Language of Politicians Reinterprets the Facts


Überwachung (surveillance), innere Sicherheit (internal security), Terrorist (terrorist) or Freiheitskämpfer (freedom fighter) – these words do not only convey information, but also opinions. Do the politicians however sometimes go too far?

Why is a picturesque sounding word like Atomruine (the ruins of a nuclear power plant) used, when what is meant is a radioactively contaminated scrap heap? Why do we read in newspaper articles the words unschuldige Opfer (innocent victims), although to be sure none of them were smothered by an avalanche or were blown to bits by a car bomb? Why did German politician, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, use a conspicuously large number of passive constructions when answering the accusations that he had plagiarised other authors in his doctoral thesis?

The answer is because the aim of the language used by politicians is often to cloud the issues and to mislead the people, at least that is the opinion of Journalist Kai Biermann and linguistics professor Martin Haase. Since 2010 the two of them have been collecting various examples of this on their blog, – examples they consider to be obfuscation and reinterpretation in the use of political language. In their book Sprachlügen (Linguistic Lies), which came out in 2012, they have compiled and analysed a whole batch of further examples of Unworte und Neusprech von ‘Atomruine’ bis ‘zeitnah’ (monstrous words and Newspeak from A to Z).

How much advertising can politics take?

Their term for Newspeak (Neusprech) goes back to George Orwell, who introduced the word in his novel, 1984. The phenomenon is then apparently not quite as new as the word implies. Nevertheless, according to Haase, since the end of the 20th century there has been an increase in obfuscation and reinterpretation in the use of political language, “Back in the 1920s Edward Bernays already observed that when it came to democracy, it always boiled down to how well one could sell oneself. And since the end of the 1990s, in the wake of the economisation of political discourse, linguistic marketing has moved even more into the spotlight.”

He went on to say that when he is reading the newspaper or listening to the radio, almost every day he comes across words and sentences that one cannot really understand; and terms that somehow only provide a distorted view of reality, “Things that people normally do not like. Surveillance, for example, suddenly becomes positive when described as internal security. Then it sounds like something we all want,” says Haase.

Behind almost every word there is an ideology

Isn’t, however, a word like surveillance also judgemental, because it implies a certain scepticism on the part of the speaker towards video-cameras in public places and biometric passports? In other words – is there such a thing as neutral, non-ideological language? “Definitely not – language always conveys a certain attitude, an idea, a concept, an ideology,” says Biermann. The only exception might possibly be the field of science, which has been working for centuries on finding a neutral form of expression and, as a result, is often not understood by everyone. Anatol Stefanowitsch, a linguistics expert from Berlin, is also convinced, “Words are never a direct depiction of reality, they are more a projection of a certain perspective. And whenever we are dealing with controversial issues on a social level, that is when ideology comes into play.”

This is illustrated clearly in the title of the book by Biermann und Haase – Sprachlügen (Linguistic Lies). “The title implies a clear rejection of this type of language, coupled with the accusation that these lies are probably deliberately, or at least negligently, used and that the politicians really ought to know better.” These accusations are however refuted by Biermann und Haase, “We do not know whether the deception is deliberate or not and that is not what we are interested in. Naturally, however, we have an attitude that we cannot hide, and do not want to hide, and our criticism of language shows clearly that we reject certain things,” says Biermann.

Those who reflect on things, escape manipulation

The effects language exerts on us are also quite questionable – do we really perceive a terrorist as being very different from a freedom fighter? And when we hear the word Steueroase (tax oasis, tax haven) do we really think of a green place in the desert to which all those “poor” rich people have to flee, in order to survive? Not necessarily, says Professor Thomas Niehr from the Institut für Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft der RWTH (Institute for Language and Communication Science) in Aachen. “On the one hand we use our language to organise our world and, depending on how we describe things, we see things in a different light. Therefore when a term asserts itself on a broad scale, it is adopted as a world view.”

In democratic societies there are, however, always groups who have a different view of things and they make this quite clear with the terms they use. “If one establishes alternative terms and, with their help, make it quite clear that one has a different view of the world, one can prevent linguistic manipulation.” It is this goal in particular that Haase and Biermann are pursuing in their work. “Above all we want to make people think and to show what certain terms are additionally able to express or even what they might actually be expressing,” says Biermann. What the individual does with this information, whether he defends the terms or coins new terms is then up to the individual himself.