Magazine, Vol. 1: Terrorism
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The Language of Terrorism

Photo: Lena Kronenbürger

“Our knowledge about weeds, cancer, and evil is mentally transferred onto terrorism”


Interview with Prof. Dr Daniela Pirazzini, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

42: How would you, as a linguist, define terrorism?

Daniela Pirazzini: The term, terrorism’ is derived from the Latin verb terrere which translates to, to frighten’, to scare’, to terrify.’ The term terrorism is nowadays commonly used to designate the committing of violent acts, spreading fear and dread. From a linguistic and discourse analytical point of view, we are only able to define the meaning of the term systematically. Examining how the term is used in a specific time in written and spoken texts of a specific language and culture community – for example the Terreur referring to the terror reign during the French Revolution which claimed thousands of lives. The different aspects of the meaning of a word are always constituted within a verbal discourse based on the conjunction with other words of the text.When we speak of la violence du terrorisme in French and la violenza del terrorismo in Italian for example, one can clearly understand that the connection between Fr. terrorisme/It. terrorismo and Fr. violence/It. violenza categorizes, ‘terrorism’ as an act and not an occurrence or state. Therefore, the meaning of a word – from a linguistic perspective – won’t correspond entirely with the linguistic (in this case of the term, ‘terrorism’) sign of the word.

42: In your research in Italian and French linguistics, you focus on the fairy tale model. What exactly is it?

DP: The fairy tale model is a mostly subconscious pattern of thought which affects our everyday life. Each fairytale model has a persecutor, a victim, and a rescuer. In different situations, for example, at home or at work we think and act based on this mental model. Stephen Karpman, an American psychologist was among the first to identify this model: the basic structure of human interaction corresponds to this triad, which we are familiar with from the classic fairytales. In everyday situations, with family, at work or in politics people tend to take up at least one of these roles. When Donald Trump, for example, claims to, “protect his country from the bad guys” he clearly depicts himself as the rescuer and leaves the role of the victim to America.

42: So, psychological tendencies continue in different structures: What is the purpose of the use of the fairytale model in politics?

DP: I will refer to a well-known example from international politics, which was presented in detail by cognitive linguist George Lakoff. To justify the Gulf War and convince the American population that an intervention in Iraq is necessary, George Bush Sr. used the fairytale model in 1991 as an argumentative technique. It was supposed to support his interest regarding a military strike. He presented Iraqi and the Kuwait people as victims and assigned the role of the persecutor to Saddam Hussein who was threatening the victims and was about to attack them. It was necessary to have a rescuer in the form of a military force, capable of protecting the victims from the aggression of the persecutor. The model served its purpose. Most Americans believed the President and were convinced that it was – how Lakoff described – a “just war.”

42: How could the fairy tale model be applied to the situation in France following the ISIS attacks?

DP: In France, the roles of the rescuer and victim are closely related. Following the terror attacks, France felt as the victim, but also politically legitimised to defend and to save itself. President François Hollande chose in his speech on November the 16th, 2015 the war as the rescuer, meaning a rescuer in the form of a military force, capable of protecting the victim (France) from the aggression of the persecutor (the ISIS terrorists) and to obliterate the persecutor. However, from their point of view, the ISIS terrorists felt themselves as well as victims in need of a rescuer. For them, terrorism takes up the role of rescuer. In a situation where both counterparties see themselves in the same role, it is extremely difficult to find a peaceful solution. It is however also questionable whether the terrorists, considering their differing cultural background, are also marked by the fairy tale model. And if so, do they conceptualise the roles in the same way as we do.

42: So, war could be legitimised by applying the drama triangle/fairy tale-triangle. In what way is it practical to apply the fairytale model in linguistics to terrorism?

DP: This model is especially productive in linguistics because of the varying terms for the roles in each language. A persecutor is described in Italian as a monster, pig, or beast. These designated terms established themselves historically, culturally, and mentally in a specific individual language enable us to gain information about how, for example, a persecutor was seen and perceived in a certain point in time within a language and culture community. The ISIS terrorists, for example, are denoted in modern French as fanatiques. As you can see in a quote of Françoise Hollande’s speech shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo: “C’est fanatiques n’ont rien à voir avec la religion musulmane.” We (in Germany) didn’t immediately associate the term fanatiques with terrorists, only the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo created this new firm connection in our minds.

42: Did the concept of terrorists as fanatics change our perception of terrorism?

DP: The conceptual metaphor “terrorists as fanatics” shaped the conception of modern day terrorism. The term “fanatic” implies that rational arguments won’t be heard and therefore communication is impossible. We are dealing with a counterpart (ISIS) who is not willing to discuss. Which presents us with a challenge.

42: As we can’t communicate with them, are we at war with ISIS?

DP: Yes, because what are the constitutive elements within the so-called frame (e.i. in our mental conception) of WAR? One must fight against the enemy. If the enemy is perceived as the absolute evil, then they must be destroyed! The solution is to destroy the enemy, which also means the destruction of evil. In this case, we don’t have the option of a dialogue; all we have left are bombs.

42: The term “fanatics” for ISIS terrorists isn’t as common in the German language. Does it have the same meaning in German as it does in French?

DP: The word combination “to fight terrorism” is more commonly used in German. It evokes associations with war, fighting, loser, and winner. It suggests that terrorism is perceived as the “enemy”. In the Romanic countries, the concept of “evil” is what is first evoked. For example, in expressions, such as éradiquer le terrorisme in French or sradicare il terrorismo in Italian.

42: Which emotions does the word “terrorism” evoke when used?

DP: The German form of the term “Terrorismus”, as well as the French and Italian equivalents, contains the word terror (French terreur and Italian terrore). It evokes the association that terrorism is a scare or a shock: an unexpected sudden happening, a moment of absolute darkness. In my opinion, it is most likely a universal mental connection, not necessarily occurring only in an individual language. When we hear the terms “terrorism” or “terrorist attack” we immediately think of fright, and we start to feel an unexpected fear, which paralyses us and leaves us silenced. To determine more precisely what exactly is meant by the term ‘terrorism’ in a specific time, it is first necessary to understand how the term is used in a specific linguistic community.

42: Let’s take the family of the romance languages as an example. How does this specific community make use of the term “terrorism”?

DP: Looking again at François Hollande’s statements following the terrorist attacks in Paris in which he used the expression “nous éradiquerons le terrorisme” (literally meaning “we will deracinate terrorism”) four times at the end of his speech. Linguistically speaking, éradiquer le terrorisme is a word combination frequently used in Italian. Former Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, for example, spoke of “grande alleanza per sradicare il terrorismo.” The French term of éradiquer and the Italian term of sradicare are closely related to terms such as ‘weeds’ (éradiquer la mouvaise herbe / sradicare l’erbo cattiva), with cancer (éradiquer le cancer / sradicare il cancro) and with ‘evil’. These rather old word relations contribute to the complex mental associations awoken by the usage of éradiquer le terrorisme or sradicare il terrorismo.

42: Based on these mental associations, do you think that the roots of terrorism are extremely hard to rip out?

DP: Not entirely. The mental connections evoking other characteristics of weeds, cancer, and evil are more important. Terrorism spreads as rapidly as weeds or a cancerous growth and destroys everything nearby. Eradicating it is difficult as it grows wildly without any obstructions. Our knowledge about weeds, cancer, and evil is mentally transferred onto terrorism. These mental associations also explain why ISIS-terrorists are referred to as “fanatics” in the modern French and Italian. Fanatics are acting unhindered and out of control.

 42: What actual conclusions can we draw from this knowledge?

DP: For the most part, these mental connections are responsible for the measures we take against ISIS-terrorism: When fighting weeds or cancer the goal is to completely eradicate it. In a war, the goal is to win against the enemy through the military.

42: Values are hidden behind these goals. Which values are defended the hardest by politicians in today’s world?

DP: A core value, which we are taught, is freedom – freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Including many more mental associations with freedom. For example, the Frame of FREEDOM includes tolerance, human rights, human dignity, and democracy. It is conveyed to us that terrorists are trying to take away our freedom, which naturally scares us. 

42: Accordingly, how important is it to find out how terrorists think about freedom?

DP: Yes, it is. We associate freedom of the individual with certain values, rules, and norms. It is the most precious asset that we possess. We will most likely find different values, dictating everyday life within the radicalised culture of ISIS. Therefore, we not only have to know what freedom means in a different cultural context, we also must learn about their core values. Many of us are afraid because the cultural background of the terrorists is unknown to us. 

42: ISIS-terrorists seem so threatening because they are elusive and anonymous. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to give a “face” to these terrorists through linguistic analysis?

DP: The media only depicts one side – ours – and it shows too little of the relevant mental concepts of the terrorists. We know for example that they praise the use of suicide as exploitation, however, we know little about their concept of the frame HUMAN BEING and whether concepts such as freedom, tolerance or dignity are coupled with the concept of “human being”. Cognitive analysis on their language und the basic concepts would be really important, and we may be able to reconstruct their perspective.

42: The American culture is much more similar to our own. Are there any similarities between these two languages when it comes to terrorists?

DP: The similarities aren’t necessarily interesting, however, the differences are. As we can see when we look at the terms of rescuer, victim, and persecutor as they are labelled differently. For example, Bush describes the terrorist based on their acts: “He [Saddam Hussein] subjected the people of Kuwait to unspeakable atrocities – and among those maimed and murdered, innocent children.” François Hollande refers to the ISIS-terrorists as “criminals” and “fanatics” (“ce sont des fanatiques”.)

Generally speaking, the interpretation of reality varies based upon the terms used for rescuer, victim, and persecutor in various communities

42: Thank you for the interview.

Interview: Lena Kronenbürger

Translation: Franziska Flade


Prof. Dr. Daniela Pirazzini
Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

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