Does linguistics really matter? – was the question posed by Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum to attendees of the Durham University Politics and International Relation Society on the 16th of October.
Although such a title may, on the surface, appear to have little relevance to the political world, Professor Pullum’s lecture was highly in tune with the politically oriented interests of his audience. Indeed, through an engaging use of case studies, Pullum invited students to become highly sceptical of linguistic based criticism of political speeches both by individuals and the press. For example, press organisation Reuters has been accused of bias against Palestine through use of the passive voice in reporting – however Professor Pullum was able to pick apart the argument against Reuters, by demonstrating a lack of the passive voice in its articles.
Moreover, through an employment of highly relevant examples, Pullum was able to demonstrate the importance of linguistics in political debates. Most memorably, a close analysis of the 2nd amendment of the American Constitution (the right to bear arms). He was able to pick out three serious syntactic and semantic errors with the amendment which he suggests is causing increased difficulty with the enforcement of laws banning guns in the US – for example, the vagueness of the sentence, ‘to keep and bear arms’, leads to difficulty interpreting the sentence as guns are never explicitly mentioned. After Pullum’s lecture, students were invited to ask questions to which he was able to provide detailed and thoughtful responses.
Pullum’s speech advocated the need for politically aware individuals to have an understanding of linguistics in order to be critical of press reports on individual speakers’ language use. He suggested that the simplicity of linguistic studies makes basic errors on behalf of reporters unforgiveable. The talk left students with a lot to think about and being a lot more aware of the dangers of simply believing all linguistic criticism in politics.
By Kate Dean