The way language is used to shape your reality

For three years in a row, the incidents from New Year’s Eve 2015/16 have been troubling Germans towards the end of each year.

You probably remember that the media were full of news about sexual assaults on women near Cologne’s main train station. Obviously, newspapers covered the topic, but – and that is important to note – they did it in quite different ways! We were curious about whether international press reports of the New Year’s Eve scandal were any different from those in the German press. Therefore, we compared an article of the local newspaper Kölner Stadtanzeiger (KSTA) with one of the New York Times (NYT) and one of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Compared to Cologne’s daily newspaper, which stayed rather objective and neutral by mainly focusing on the reports of witnesses, both English newspapers adopted another tone. This becomes obvious when comparing the terms used for the attackers. They were in fact rather different: While KSTA referred to the attackers as “unbekannte Männer” (unknown men), NYT as well as BBC explicitly stated their origin (“men of Arab and North African appearance”). Consequently, the American Newspaper further included the ongoing debate about migration and integration (NYT: “political challenge […] [due to] Germany’s willingness to take in one million migrants”), while KSTA didn’t mention it at all and BBC explicitly stated that there was “[…] no official confirmation that asylum seekers had been involved in the violence”.

Why are we telling you this? Because a linguistic research program (Wodak 2011) comes into play when analysing texts like the newspaper articles above. It’s called Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). But what exactly is CDA?

CDA aims to investigate power relationships in society and the role language plays in changing or maintaining them. So basically, researchers look at written texts, speeches, conversations, speech acts, etc. – language units that are larger than isolated words and sentences (Wodak 2011) – to find out how some people use language to gain an advantage. No kidding, you can gain advantages by the way you phrase whatever you say. One of the basic assumptions of CDA is that reality is not objective, but socially constructed through discourse. So if you’re clever, you can manipulate people and make them see reality the way you want them to.

In the case of the newspaper articles like the ones we discussed above, you often find that they have a certain agenda, because the journalists or the people who own the newspaper have political views they want their readers to adopt. So what can you do to not be manipulated?

You can use CDA, of course! For example, you can look at a text very closely and try to identify which grammatical and word choices the author makes to convey his or her point of view. For example, in the articles mentioned in the beginning, the use of the term ‘migrants’ in the NYT article or ‘asylum seekers’ in the BBC’s instead of ‘refugees’, which is typically used in German media, indicates a rather negative view on their situation. While ‘refugees’ implies that they are people in need of help, calling them ‘asylum seekers’ might make them seem like opportunistic welfare seekers, and the word ‘migrants’ has a rather neutral connotation. You see how a single word can completely change the message of text.

But as with every research approach, there are of course also opponents criticizing CDA. Some risks involved may be that researchers will try to overanalyse their findings. Moreover, maintaining a distanced and unbiased view can become difficult quite quickly in an issue as polarising as immigration politics. All of this, of course, does not mean that manipulation through language cannot or should not be analysed. Critical thinking is the way to go, dear reader!

Point being: If you can get people to accept the way you present your information, be it in newspaper articles or in your own everyday speech, their ways of thinking and acting may change. The exact choice of words will be one factor playing into how your message is processed. That is what you want, and of course that is what others want, too! So be on your guard.


Wodak, R. (2011). Critical discourse analysis: Overview, challenges, and perspectives. In G. Andersen & K. Aijmer (Eds.), Pragmatics of society (pp. 627–650). Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

Picture credits: 

Featured image: (Pixabay CC0)

Additional image: (Pixabay CC0) 

Alina, Thorsten, and Fabio

Thorsten Tepper and Fabio Seiler are master's students of Applied Linguistics at the University of Bonn. Alina Podolski is a former student in the same programme.

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