Language and Ideology in the Media - Germany’s Janus-Faced Weekly DER SPIEGEL

Essay, 2006

8 Pages


Language and Ideology in the Media

Every piece of written or oral statement conveys some sort of ideology, whether it expresses its “idea(s)” bluntly or – as is to be expected from, say, a high-quality read – by employing effective literary devices that are designed to convince its readership. A slovenly written book or text, on the other hand, can even carry ideological messages unknowingly and thereby lose all its credibility and in some cases even expose itself to ridicule. A thoughtless statement, remark or non-verbal expression (gestures / facial expressions) can challenge other people to intervene and, depending on the rhetorics of the speaker, debunk the utterance or the kind of expression / behaviour of the former.

It is a truism that our everyday speech, i.e. modern language, quite frequently borrows words from the media includin g the ideas these purport, thereby rendering many of us parrots - unless we are impervious to such propaganda.

‘Dangerous thoughts,’ of course, need not be (and seldom are) expressed by employing overt and explicit racist or misogynistic vocabulary. Rather, new coinages of old and familiar words prove to be more insidious as is, for one, the case with the German word “Überfremdung” which is hardly translatable into English. Only through attentive listening is it possible to discern the malicious nature of the idea which is expressed by a simple, because arbitrary, formation of common words. In this example, it is the preposition über which does the trick. There is a myriad of possible examples in the German language where über is in frequent use (such as in “Überlastung”, “Überforderung” etc.), describing a ‘too much’ situation where something or someone is bound to collapse due to something or someone constantly imposing a high pressure on it / the person. The message carried here, of course, calls for some sort of stance – or action: thus resistance to the perils of Überfremdung[1].

We encounter ideology most frequently in political speeches both on television and in the press. In order to get to the core of the ideas attached to it, it is not enough, however, just to query controversial terms since, ‘contemporary ideology making’ is a much more complex process and cannot be identified by simply ‘scanning’ a text or statement and identifying certain terms which are on our blacklist[2]. A ‘canonized’ approach – i.e. corpus linguistics - alone will not suffice but it yields some results as to how often a particular term is used etc.

Let us concentrate on an example taken from the – once – ‘left-wing’ German weekly DER SPIEGEL. It is a recent interview with the American writer John Updike about his latest novel “Terrorist”[3] that was published in June 2006:


“In the Koran there are different statements. Mohammed was often on the defensive and therefore bellicose – thus the statements. At the same time he has said that the Jews and the Christians were our ‘brothers’. We are all children of the Bible. The Koran (just like the Bible) can be manipulated for various ends. You will always find an appropriate quotation. Both the Bible and the Koran contain passages demanding that the heathens be annihilated.”


And yet it seems more likely that terror is rooted in Islam or the Koran than in western society.”[4]

It is vital to pay particular attention to the speech acts in this example. Since the interview is about his novel, it is likely that Updike will be ‘occupied with defending’ his work and the ideas as given in his novel, whereas the interviewer will expose him to critical questions. Updike’s statements are – at this stage – perfectly ‘alright’, i.e. politically correct. He acknowledges that both the Bible and the Koran offer various interpretations that can be twisted by others according to their own – usually foul – ends It is the answer (!) the interviewer gives to these ‘moderate’ statements which proves irritating. Normally, an interviewer asks questions – no matter how critical they are – and requires of the interviewee to face these and answer accordingly. This interviewer, however, rejects his traditional status of a ‘simple interrogator’, i.e. someone who accepts any statement made by the interviewee. While there is nothing wrong about the elevation of the former’s status to a peer of his interlocutor (indeed, this creates an atmosphere of an ideal speech situation in which all interlocutors are equal), there is a huge problem with the rhetoric he employs. Had he put a question mark behind the sentence, the reader would have felt inclined to think that this was a ‘normal’ critical question. Such a question, however, would have made no sense at all because Updike has already given a detailed account of the issue that this question relates to. Even to put such a question would thus have appeared preposterous.

There is yet another way of reading this sentence, the dot then would be tantamount to an (imaginary) question mark but since we have excluded such a possibility, this would not make any sense either. Therefore it seems impossible that we are dealing with a misprint – the dot is put deliberately and decisively.


[1] The preposition über – just as almost any preposition in German as well as in English - is extremely productive in terms of both German and English word formation, cf. “phrasal verbs / nouns”. Of course über can designate different kinds of meanings such as in “übersetzen” (to translate).

[2] Note that the term black list also evokes a dubious connotation. Cf. for racism in the English language.

[3] The novel tells the story of a young working-class American-Arab Muslim who becomes a terrorist.

[4] Interview with Martin Doerry and Volker Hage. In: DER SPIEGEL: 32 / 2006 (7 August 2006), p. 142-148, my translation (the text was, of course, originally written in German).

Excerpt out of 8 pages


Language and Ideology in the Media - Germany’s Janus-Faced Weekly DER SPIEGEL
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglistisches Institut)
Socio-Cultural Perspectives and the Study of Language Use (Applied Linguistics)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Ein kritischer Kommentar
language, ideology, media, germany’s, janus-faced, weekly, spiegel
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StR Sener Saltürk (Author), 2006, Language and Ideology in the Media - Germany’s Janus-Faced Weekly DER SPIEGEL, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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