Language and Politics

10 07 2008
How do we communicate successfully? – Fritz Kuhn, politician and linguist, suggests that politics would benefit if more politicians had studied their own language
Are sensitive arts graduates less at home in the rough and tumble of political life than hard-headed lawyers or political scientists? “Not at all,” says Fritz Kuhn, a man who knows what he’s talking about. The former linguistics professor at the Metz Academy in Stuttgart is now chairman of the Greens’ parliamentary group in the German parliament. “Political critique is nothing other than language critique,” Kuhn insists, and that is something that students of their own language learn more thoroughly than anyone else. That makes them indispensable in the political arena, whether as parliamentarians, advisers or media people.

Kuhn’s lecture on “Language and Politics” was the last in the series “Germanists and Society” and it was much more than a rallying call for students of German who still have no idea what job they want to go into after graduation. Instead, the Heidelberg parliamentarian gave an impressive outline of the degree to which political decisions and developments depend on language, for example when topical catchwords are pitted against one another for political purposes. In his view politicians and political scientists should all have a basic grounding in language critique, something that unfortunately happens rarely, if ever.

In addition, Kuhn gave his audience a quick run-down on the subject “How do we communicate successfully?” To this end he availed himself of the famous conversational maxims proposed by language philosopher Paul Grice: Be relevant! Be credible! Be perspicuous! Kuhn illustrated the importance of these maxims with reference to cases where they had been ignored and the communicative aims had failed as a result.

The Greens themselves had been made painfully aware of what happens when the relevance of political objectives is inadequately foregrounded. “In the federal election campaign of 1990 we took a nosedive with our slogan ‘Everyone else talks about German unity, we talk about the weather’.” This attempt to shift the political focus underestimated the fact that, at the time, it was quite simply impossible to make the subject of climate change appear more relevant than German reunification.”

Kuhn went on to claim that today Grice’s maxim of “perspicuity” or comprehensibility was the one most frequently flouted. “Today’s politicians are almost all specialists who move around with consummate ease in their own terminological world but forget that hardly anyone else knows the subtle difference between base income and subsistence level.” The disastrous outcome is scepticism and suspicion about the “waffle” of politicians in general.

Finally Kuhn proposed to his audience a fourth maxim of his own: Be entertaining! He hastened to add that by this he did not mean the kind of political gag perpetrated by FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who once painted the figure “18” on the soles of his shoes to indicate that his party had set itself the task of cornering 18% of the vote in the general elections. What he meant was the ability to stimulate the imagination of one’s communication partners with cogent and punchy diction. A model in this respect, Kuhn said, was the CDU politician Heiner Geißler.

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Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

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