#5: How the Coronavirus is Altering our Language

Lockdown light, social distancing and hybrid semester - these are all terms that we have been using in our everyday lives for a while now. The coronavirus pandemic has made it very clear how quickly our language can change. But why is that so? Why do societal events change the way we speak? And how can we change society through our words?

Professor Kersten Roth and his team at the University of Magdeburg are researching our language - how it develops and how the media and politicians use it in a targeted way. In the latest episode of “Learn When You Want To”, the linguist talks about his research, how Donald Trump has changed political communication and what the little messages in the cubicles in public toilets have to say about our communication.

Our guest today

In our first episode of the New Year, our guest is Professor Kersten Roth from the  Chair of German Language & Literature at the University of Magdeburg, or more specifically, of German Linguistics. Professor Roth teaches and conducts research into linguistics, for example on the subjects of communication skills and rhetoric. In addition to German Language & Literature, other study programs available in the Faculty of Humanities, Social Science & Education include Teacher Training, European Studies, Cultural Engineering, Social Sciences, Sports Science, Peace & Conflict Studies and Philosophy - Neurosciences - Cognition.


*the audio file is only available in German


The Podcast to Read

Intro voice: "Wissen, wann du wilst." The podcast about research at the University of Magdeburg.


Ina Götze: It starts with a sleepy “good morning”, continues with meetings and mails at work, with the countless WhatsApp messages that we send every day, and in the evening ends with small talk in a bar - well at the moment perhaps not so much - instead perhaps with the news on TV. We are talking about language, which is our constant companion throughout the day. Our guest today and his team research the effect of language, the purposeful manner in which it is used, how it influences us and also how our society is changed by it. Professor Kersten Roth is Professor of German Linguistics specializing in Media Linguistics and Political Communication here at the University of Magdeburg. In what other format could we possibly discuss the topic of language than in a podcast? Welcome, Professor Roth!

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Hello Ms Götze!

Ina Götze: To give us a better idea of your work, what does a professor of German Linguistics actually do all day?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: To begin with, German linguistics is nothing more than the science of the German language. And when we tell people that, then they often think that we probably must sit writing the Duden dictionary or are otherwise concerned with investigating grammatical errors in our environment and made by our fellow human beings, as a kind of defender of the German language. Of course that isn't what we do at all. To begin with, we do exactly what all of our colleagues here at the university do, we teach and we conduct research. Our research is, of course, concerned with questions that relate to lexicography or grammar, in other words the structure of the language. But our area of focus at OVGU is actually on the things that you mentioned in your introduction, the things that you can actually find in real life, as I like to say. This field is Applied Linguistics, and it actually covers everything that contained in language, ranging from refined areas of language such as scientific or legal terminology to the graffiti on the walls in public toilets. We have colleagues who are exploring just that. We are completely indiscriminate.

The remarkable thing about this perspective that we pursue, is that we actually perceive language less as an object, something that exists and is complete and that we can only look at, but rather we are actually more interested in the action of language, so to a certain extent more for the speaking than for the language itself. We investigate speaking as a social act; it is this that interests us and what we analyze and attempt to understand and discover what takes place “in the wild”, if you like. So that which is known, somewhat disparagingly, as “desk linguistics”, where someone actually sits at their desk and ponders on how things could be with a language - another way of describing it is “armchair linguistics” - that is something that we tend not to do. Instead it is actually a theory-driven but strictly empirical science.

Ina Götze: “In the wild” - I would be interested to know what can actually be deduced from the graffiti in public toilets?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, it isn't one of my research areas, but it is a very interesting subject for exploration, because one can see relatively quickly... I think anyone who has looked at this stuff knows that actually there is some complex interaction going on there... somebody writes something on the wall and somebody else adds to it, replies, corrects it, somehow makes something different out of it. And, of course, there are linguistic processes at work that are of interest to us.

Ina Götze: Nowadays it is the case that society and language influence one another, so when something in our society changes, the way in which we speak changes too, and conversely, language does, of course, also influence the way in which we perceive things and even people. One example is gender-sensitive language. Can we really help to bring about a change in thinking and achieve greater equality of opportunity through our choice of words?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Well, to an extent this is one of those chicken and egg questions, in other words, does reality dictate language, or does language dictate reality? Fundamentally, in linguistics, we work today on a constructivist basic concept, which means that we assume that this reality about which we are speaking does not actually exist, rather in large part it is linguistically constructed. And if one works from this assumption, then naturally there is this interrelationship between societal reality and language. So a very central concept in modern linguistics is the term “knowledge” and the insight that a lot of things that we know about the world we only in fact know because they have been mediated by language. An example that I often like to use is this: we all know, and have known since childhood, that the earth revolves around the sun, although all of our empirical observations contradict this every single day, because, of course, every day we see once again that the sun moves. And nevertheless we regard this as a known fact. And how did this knowledge come about? Actually only because we have heard the sentence “the earth revolves around the sun” as a linguistic utterance many times. And, if that is the case, then it is relatively easy to see that, of course, language really does have an influence on how we see the world.

And if I can come to your question about gender. It is psycho-linguistic, there is no question about it, that the so-called generic masculine form (in languages, like German, that have both male and female forms of nouns) is in any way neutral, in other words when we hear a masculine form, we do not think about both men and women. In German, for example, a sentence like: “Fragen Sie ihren Arzt oder Apotheker...” (Ask your doctor (male form) or pharmacist (male form)), which is something that we hear often... I think nobody can deny that for a millisecond the mental picture we have is of a man in a white coat, even though, of course, we know that we could just as easily ask our female doctor or female pharmacist, but it means, of course, that female doctors and pharmacists are, however briefly, forgotten, not considered. Indeed we have long become used... you hardly ever hear it otherwise... when speaking about individuals to no longer revert to the masculine form. For example, nobody now would say “Ich habe gerade erfahren mein Hausarzt ist schwanger” (I have just discovered that my [male] doctor (in German the word “Hausarzt” is the masculine form) is pregnant”, instead we would say “Meine Hausärztin ist schwanger” (my [female] doctor is pregnant” (Hausärztin is the female form). That is completely unremarkable now, but it hasn't always been the case. So there is this relationship to visibility, and the generic masculine is not neutral in this sense. But I would like to add something: the relationships are a little more complicated. And that too interests us from a linguistic perspective. That is to say, it is absolutely not the case that we can empirically demonstrate that the masculine form is always chosen by everyone. In spring this year, for a while we discussed how the supermarket checkout assistants (female) were praised for continuing to work during the first wave of the pandemic. And nobody spoke about supermarket checkout assistants (male), instead, very systematically, written articles referred to female checkout assistants. Or we read time and again that combining raising a family with a career is a problem for mothers. Far less often do we see wordings that give us to understand that this might also be a problem for fathers or for the parents or a couple. It has to do with stereotypes, and stereotypes are also constructed linguistically, so this is another area of interest for us. In general terms, when it comes to the topic of gender, yes, we can confirm that language influences societal reality. However it does not change the fact that the decision as to how one wishes to handle it always rests with the individual speaker.

Ina Götze: A very nice example where the generic masculine comes up against a stereotype is, in fact, if I were to say to my colleagues, “I’m going to the hairdresser’s (male form) today.” Then everyone says, “Great! What are you going to get her to do?” And I say, “No, it’s a male hairdresser.” He actually is a man.” But, although the German word “Friseur” is masculine, everyone assumes that I will be having my hair cut by a woman.

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, exactly, that is an excellent example. For starters you might say, “OK, I’m going to the hairdresser’s,” but that will more be interpreted as meaning to the hairdresser’s salon, to the institution of the hairdresser's, to a certain extent. And then the stereotypical idea that the person who works there is sure to be a woman springs to mind.

Ina Götze: Let’s see when things change. The choice of Germany's Youth Word of the Year is a good way of seeing how language changes. For some adults to the point that it is no longer entirely comprehensible. Why is it the case, though, that every generation needs its own words?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Well, to begin with, this idea of choosing the youth word of the year itself is primarily an advertising campaign by the publisher. Often it comes out that young people say they have never heard of the word... [laughs]... because often something is chosen that is as original as possible, as creative as possible, that draws attention.

Ina Götze: That’s reassuring!

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: But youth language itself is, naturally, an interesting phenomenon. And it shows two things, I believe, that are important from a linguistic perspective. On the one hand, youth language shows the great strength and distinctiveness of the system of signs that is language, human language in comparison with other systems of signs. This system adapts. It adapts itself constantly to the world in which it is used. So, if we think of a system of signs like the road traffic signs, for example, that is not capable of adapting itself. It can sometimes be adapted in that one is added, or another is deleted, but basically it is just not dynamic. Language changes fundamentally every day, or strictly speaking with every single utterance that is made and can as a result adapt to changed worlds. So, when I look back at my childhood and youth and think... so in the late 1970s, early 1980s... about what kind of a world it was, then it was a world in which the majority of households, including mine, did not have a computer. Today we all have a computer, and indeed a networked and extremely high-performance computer in our pockets or permanently in our hands. In my early childhood in West Germany wives still had to get their husbands’ permission if they wanted to get a job. I was 16 when the Wall came down, and in my childhood and youth - I grew up in West Germany - the idea that I might one day work in the lovely Magdeburg was absolutely not on the table, so it is a completely different world now. From a linguistic perspective, when you realize that speaking is a social act, then it is easy to see that it has to adapt.

The second thing that youth language makes clear is that language is also not that which we often imagine it to be in our everyday lives, in other words simply a tool for conveying information. That is, of course, one of its functions, but really only one of many. Language has many other functions, including what we would describe as a socio-symbolic function. Another role of youth language is as a means of differentiation. Youth language serves as a way of identifying a social group that wishes to distinguish itself from the generations from which it has just liberated itself, so to say, in this phase. And also this always means that the people who do not belong to this group, from the very outset never actually have a chance of keeping up, because, at the point when somebody like me at almost 50 years old has worked it out, then it is basically already too late.

Ina Götze: So is it to a certain extent conscious, that as kids they really don’t at all want to be understood by their parents?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, understanding is perhaps not at all the key point, but what, in any case, they don’t want is that their parents use this language because it is the language of their own peer group.

Ina Götze: So what were the “hipster” words of your youth? And are there words that you now no longer understand?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Well not “hipster” for example! I do not think that this word existed yet in the German language in my childhood and youth. I am actually from the generation that made the word “geil” (a German word that generally means “cool”, but also “horny”) socially acceptable.

Ina Götze: Yes.

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: From an obscene and very highly sexualized expression to an expression that today is largely used in a neutral way. And naturally it was also my generation that somehow felt that an advertising slogan “Geiz ist geil” (frugality rocks) could be a good advertising slogan.

Ina Götze: (Laughs)

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: I wasn’t personally involved... (Laughs) Yes, but that was my generation too. If you are confused by and don’t understand anything about youth expressions today, the point is actually not really the meaning. I mean it isn’t the case that there are words where I just don’t understand what they mean, or if so, then I can simply ask my kids relatively quickly what they mean. The problem actually lies more on the level that we in linguistics term “pragmatic”, in other words it is on the level of how one uses these words, when are they used, who uses them and even when does one not use them - for example, you might come across as being a bit out of touch if you try to use a particular expression. There is often a certain background knowledge that I lack. Present-day youth expressions might have something to do with certain internet trends, with memes, perhaps, that the young people are familiar with and that I, however, do not know, and for which reason I do not know precisely how they should actually be used. It is also quite fascinating that it is, in part, extremely complicated. And that too can be empirically and linguistically explored in youth language research. There was an interesting study when the word “Assi” (meaning trash or trashy, derived from the word “asozial” or antisocial) was very common in youth language - perhaps around 10 years ago - a study by colleagues who examined it using empirical material, and they showed that this expression “Assi” was used as a negative attribution to other groups and as a positive self-attribution by the same speakers. And these are things that as an outsider it is hard to learn. It is a little bit like when one is learning a foreign language, one can, if one works hard, at some point learn all or most of the vocabulary, and one can master the grammar, but the fine nuances - “when should I use this word, and when not?” - that might not be possible. And there is no difference to youth language in this respect.

Ina Götze: I, for example, would not be able to say when the word “Assi” should be used in a positive sense. I know it from the question: “Wie assi bist du denn?” (“How antisocial are you?”) But not in the positive sense.

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, you might say that the positive usage works a little bit indirectly. These kids in the group used the word when they themselves, so to speak, wanted to present themselves as a really wild group. But in this context then as something positive, showing off about the wild things that they do.

Ina Götze: Crazy. Personally, I occasionally like to use forgotten words like “famos” (fab), “bauchmiezeln” (to flatter) and “mumpitz” (claptrap). Are there words that used to be used a lot that you miss?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Well, to begin with, thinking about “famos”, that is really interesting, because yesterday I was in a video conference where a much younger colleague of mine used the word “famos” twice.

Ina Götze: Oh, that’s fab!

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: (Laughs) Exactly! It doesn’t seem to be something individual, instead perhaps the word is making a comeback. And that also absolutely happens time and again in youth language contexts, where old words are reactivated and suddenly become fashionable again. Perhaps that is the case with “famos”. Personally, I don’t mourn any words “after the event”. Linguists have a very matter-of-fact relationship with language. We know that linguistic change is necessary and for that reason we don’t mourn when certain words pass out of use. But actually that is, if one takes a step back, so to speak, an important point. The forgotten words or the lost words are just never completely lost. It is always in the hands of the speakers to bring such words back into use and there are definitely also contexts where one might imagine doing it systematically. Leibniz, who many people will know first and foremost as a mathematician - if the name doesn’t make you think of biscuits or cookies - was also interested in language, and there was a paper that he wrote at the end of the 17th century where he dealt with how it might be possible to evolve what was - at that time - the under-developed German scientific terminology. How it might be possible to expand the vocabulary in German. He cited various sources, foreign expressions of course, and also regional dialect expressions, that one might use as well as old words, forgotten words, so to speak. This means that there is, of course, always a stock of words that we can go back to.

Ina Götze: And now it is also true that the feeling for language not only developed as a result of societal changes, but also technical ones - the key word here being “digital media”. How has our way of communicating been changed by Facebook, WhatsApp and the rest?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: It has, of course, changed fundamentally. What has changed less is the language as such, the linguistic system, so to speak. That doesn’t happen so quickly. Or so easily. Genuine linguistic transformation, we always think in dimensions of - let’s say - at least centuries. We cannot prove this. Incidentally, what cannot be linguistically proven, which is a worry that we often hear, is that the language of the young who have grown up with it, is somehow depleted, poorer. There was a study done by colleagues in Zurich, who looked to see whether communicating a lot via digital media is actually reflected in school essays, whether, so to speak, any influences could be substantiated. They found that this was not the case, that young people are able to differentiate between these different variants and are able to master them too. So at this level there is not such a big influence.

However there is an influence on two levels. One of them is again something that would belong in the area of “pragmatism”: naturally our linguistic-communicative budget, as we would call it, has changed completely. Today we communicate in many contexts via social media. And incidentally that often means in writing where we once would have communicated verbally, for example made a telephone call, where we needed to manage things quite differently in the past. When I was a student, if I wanted to speak to a professor, then I had to put a note on their door. Then I would have to spend an afternoon in the hallway with 20 other people waiting for a chance at some point to get to see him or her, and then according to some kind of convention ask a question that took all of three minutes. Today the students simply send an email. Of course that changes things beyond this communication channel. It is easy to imagine that where such communication channels exist, where it is possible for students and lecturers to communicate very quickly, regularly and economically, that the relationship between the communication partners will also change - in this case I would think that is absolutely positive - but that is another area where you can see that it doesn't simply remain a linguistic matter but has relevance beyond that.

The second thing is that the status of language is a little bit different in our communication, because language is now very commonly embedded in other, for example multimodal, contexts. If you imagine a typical WhatsApp chat, then somebody writes something in words, then perhaps in reply a photo will come back and in turn as an answer a voice note, a video, and of course between all of that there are legions of emojis too...

Ina Götze: (Laughs)

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: ...and all of that together makes the conversation. Actually this is extremely interesting from a linguistic perspective, also how quickly we have developed routines for carrying out this multimodal form of communication. But in this combination, language naturally has a different significance.

Ina Götze: While we are discussing social media, the very particular communication style of Donald Trump on Twitter springs to mind. After all, he engaged in a very distinctive kind of political communication using it. By doing so, has he brought about a lasting change to the language of politics?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: I believe that perhaps he has not changed the language of politics, although he did in fact use some very idiosyncratic language. There was once a very nice headline in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung “Politik in leichter Sprache” (Politics in Simple Language) to describe Trump’s style, whereby he very frequently works with single words, that he constantly repeats, and which are not necessarily part of the vocabulary of political language. So that really is a characteristic feature. But I can’t say right now whether this style will endure. What certainly can no longer be put back in the box is that Donald Trump showed that the stylistic rules and regularities of political communication actually can be overridden by social media. So all of that that falls under “gatekeeping”. Before Donald Trump entered office, we would not have imagined that an American president would actually communicate in short messages from the private rooms of the White House by bypassing the entire administration and professional journalists in order to reach the people that he wanted to reach. And he showed that it works. There has always been a little bit of a hope that with social media the phenomenon of gatekeeping could be overcome, and perhaps new audiences reached, allowing more people to participate. I think that the example of Trump, and we are absolutely seeing such trends here in our own country too, has actually demonstrated that there is more or less a clogging up of the discourse space. In other words, that this method of communication actually reduces the space in which a reasonable discussion about political issues can take place. I think this is a trend - I do not know if one can say that Donald Trump caused it - but I think he has demonstrated to us very drastically the trends that we are ultimately experiencing worldwide at present, and this is something that has a lot to do with social media. I still would not condemn social media. They can certainly be used in a positive way, although that does require their users to be prepared to do so.

Ina Götze: What, in any case, he has changed, is, to a certain extent, our own vocabulary. The term “fake news”, for instance. Before Trump we hardly used it at all. That is a term that he has made it acceptable to use, so to speak. But is it possible to tell from language alone, whether somebody is lying?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: (Laughs) Well, not for us linguists! Perhaps, in fact, other scientists may be able to do so. Psychologists might possibly be able to see it in certain physical responses, simply from physical gestures or similar. Linguists tend not to be able to. From a linguistic point of view, we would also, if there were to be such a thing as a lie detector, say, “ok, that can, of course, only detect lies when the liar knows that he is lying.” The concept of lying is, of course, possibly far more complicated. A banal example: we bring up our children to lie, when, for example, their uncle asks, “do you think I’m fat?” and the child, if he or she is well brought up says “no, you’re fine!”

Ina Götze: (Laughs)

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: ... and in so doing possibly knowingly tells a lie and would not pass a lie detector test. But the question is, is that a lie? Linguistically, we would file it under something like politeness. So in this respect, detecting lies, probably not. As far as fake news is concerned, the fascinating thing, of course, is that the accusation of fake news always works in both directions. So Donald Trump shaped this term very strongly, but his opponents certainly did so too... There are whole lists and walls on which people have gathered together the lies of Donald Trump, so yes, it goes in both directions. As a linguistic observer of language we would in the first instance not have such a big problem with different truths, alternative facts, if you like. Political language and debate always thrive on different perspectives, which are then also captured in language, in other words with different constructions of reality. Otherwise, we would not need political debate. That a certain measure is described by one side as “mothers’ pension” and by the other as a “stay at home bonus”, that is the nature of political debate and we would not actually decide: yes, it is actually a “mother’s pension” and “stay at home bonus” is a lie, or vice versa. Rather, they are different constructions. In the Trump context especially, we can also see, that there needs to be a certain consensus about the bedrock of the debate. So one person can call it a “stay at home bonus” and the other can call it a “mother's pension”, but if, in principle, people begin to question whether or not, in fact, this draft law exists, then political debate becomes difficult, and it is this that we have now had demonstrated to us by the behavior of Donald Trump after the election.

Ina Götze: In keeping with the subject of politics and society, you are currently establishing a post for linguistic social research. And we are a little bit proud, because this will create something at our university that there is nowhere else in Germany at the present time: namely a transfer center providing political and social linguistic advice. What exactly will you be researching there and why are the findings important for us?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, in this form in any case, so far there has not been anything like this at other universities in Germany. As we have already discussed a little today, we know that social and political phenomena actually always have something to do with language. My colleagues from the subjects that are responsible for this, the social and political sciences, know it. Journalists know it too, and yet it is the case that linguistics as a voice, and also as a consulting institution, is heavily underexposed. We in the community have been aware of this and lamenting it for a long time now. And the hard truth is that we linguists ourselves are to blame for this, because we have not cleared up a misunderstanding. The misunderstanding consists in the fact that people think that linguists are people who are concerned with language, are experts who know something about language. And that is true, I don’t want to make out that it isn’t.

But we explore language, among other reasons, so that, by analyzing it, we can understand something about social reality, we can understand social problems, identify challenges, recognize opportunities. And the objective that my team and I are pursuing with this post for linguistic social research is to make this second perspective better known and to actually make it usable in a very concrete way. If you ask what we are researching, then fundamentally, it is that our normal area of research, our area of actual expertise. I want to use a couple of examples to explain the direction that it might go in. If, for example, we have a discussion like the one about racist communication in WhatsApp groups among police officers, which spent a while talking about, then initially the subject of this discussion is language actions. Incidentally, language actions in this case in digital media - we have already mentioned this - which to a certain extent have their own rules. And where a linguistic analysis: What is communicated? What is formulated? What is transmitted? And so on. These are questions that can certainly be approached from a linguistic point of view and, of course, we can ask, “Is racism a linguistic phenomenon in the first place and a linguistic construction?” Like, incidentally, sexism too. And all those involved in fighting these things, where we are hopefully in agreement that it is necessary, can make use of linguistic expertise. Another example is everything that has to do with social divergence and convergence, so with the cohesion of society and what pushes society apart. This too is often closely associated with language. I myself have worked on the East-West discourse for a long time, in other words on the linguistic relationships between East and West Germany. We are all familiar with the expression about the wall or walls in our heads, that still exist between East and West. We would say that they are discourse walls, or that they are walls that have been created linguistically, and one can, for example, look at the media discourse about East and West and show relatively clearly that there is actually a certain mold, I once called it a topical staircase, a certain description pattern, into which East Germany is regularly placed in linguistic terms that consists of the marking of differences. So the East German is always the thing that is different from an unnamed template that is, of course, the West, but that is not normally stated. This difference is generally a weakness, it is not a positive difference, but somehow always a weakness, and this weakness is framed as a burden for West Germany or for Germany as a whole, and a mold like this of course contributes to the impossibility of overcoming certain differences and divisions. A specific example: Pegida (the German anti-Islam, anti-immigrant movement) is always conceptualized as an East German phenomenon in the media. Querdenker (the anti-Covid lockdown movement) is not described as a West German phenomenon in the same way, although in its original form it even had the Stuttgart telephone prefix in its name and, of course, originates from certain scenes that are very typically West German.

Recognizing such things, for example, and they are all linguistically demonstrable phenomena, would be one thing that we would very much like to introduce to this transfer center, so it can be used where it is needed. And if you would permit me, I would like to mention a third aspect, because it is perhaps interesting for the university. We are actually thinking about our colleagues from other scientific disciplines and especially from those that perhaps do not have Germanists on their radar, when they go about their work, for example our colleagues from the engineering sciences. In many fields of work, acceptance is a factor, for example when we think about projects that have to do with autonomous driving. The issue there is: What will society accept? How far would it go? What fears are there? What possible worries are there? And something like this can be researched from different directions. For example, social psychologists here at OVGU are looking at it, but it can also be explored in terms of the language used in the debate. And that means it can be examined by looking at the media discourses, but also, of course, in everyday discussions, how people are speaking about the subject, and you can find out specifically what it is that the people actually think who are afraid of autonomous driving? For example, what do they imagine it to be? What do they actually mean? And that can certainly support communication processes between science and lay-people, so to speak, and corresponding accompanying research would be conceivable, for example.

Ina Götze: You have also just mentioned the media discourse, which, in relation to perception and opinion forming, is also extremely important. For example, that Pegida or the Querdenker movement are perceived to East German. A textbook example of exaggeration is the Bild newspaper, which often reduces its headlines to a very brief statement. How much influence on our opinions do the media have with the language they use?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Naturally a very big one. So what we discussed at the beginning, that a lot of what we know about the world is mediated by language, very often means, to put it more precisely, that we know things from what we see and hear in the media and the main media such as the Bild newspaper or, of course, others, play a very large role there, of course. The relationship between media language, which certainly is one of our focal areas, and political language, which is another of our main areas of interest. It is often a relatively complicated relationship. I want to tie it perhaps to the year 2020 and the coronavirus debate and role of the virologists in this debate. In spring 2020... suddenly specialists popped up, initially only a few and above all male experts from a discipline that otherwise had not appeared all that often in the media discourse - let’s say in Bild - namely virologists and epidemiologists. And in the spring, if we look, for example, at March/April 2020, they were relied upon very heavily by the political... by politicians to communicate with us and to justify and legitimize the very extensive and, theoretically, from the point of view of democracy, problematic political decisions, and in this respect these virologists - I’m thinking of Mr Drosten, Mr Streg - were built up a great deal. They suddenly appeared on every political talk show and were suddenly protagonists in this discourse and the whole thing, and then the media came into play, not solely in terms of political logic, not even in terms of scientific logic, but in terms of media logic. And the media needs certain aspects, needs certain principles, including personalization, and also variety - so the media always needs something new and that led, not least from Bild, which you mentioned in the beginning, to this building up of, for example, Christian Drosten as the great new hope. Then there was a campaign, some of you will still remember, where you could vote in Bild for your favorite virologist - “Trusted Virologists” or something similar, it was called - and just a few days or weeks later the dismantling began, for example of Christian Drosten, by the media. Which in turn led to politicians beginning to distance themselves from the virologists. Then suddenly Armin Laschet said, “this and that, it all has too much to do with virology.” And then this stuff started up again. So it is a very complicated relationship between politics and the media, and in this case expert scientists. We are starting, or have in November, a third-party project in cooperation with Darmstadt University of Technology, where we will look at that in greater detail. It is called “Between the ivory tower and the rough sea” and we plan to look more closely at the role of virologists between politicians and the media.

Ina Götze: A very adroit title, one would have to say. So the virologists are, to a certain extent, the pop stars of the coronavirus pandemic - first praised and then dropped like a hot potato. Have you noticed from the start of the pandemic, any particular linguistic features - you have already mentioned some - in the language used by politicians and the media, to perhaps improve our acceptance of certain measures?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, first of all, I want to quickly add something about the pop stars - pop stars to begin with, but then in large part scapegoats too and all subject to the logic of the media. I has just come back to me that Christian Drosten said at some point that he would see cartoons in the newspaper in which he would see himself as a comic character and he would feel sick. And you can see that there are risks in entering the media sphere unprepared for people who have not dealt with this logic or attitude before.

Ina Götze: You have to feel sorry for them. They are only doing their jobs and are then dragged through the mud for doing so.

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Well yes, in fact the question, and that is a little the idea of our project, would also be to see if it is possible to protect scientists from this to some extent. What should one actually do to prevent it from happening? It is certainly only possible to a certain extent, since media logic, is, after all, media logic. But we want to take a little look to see, perhaps, the point where one thing or another went wrong. Concerning your question about strategies, international comparisons are absolutely fascinating when looking at how politicians have dealt with the coronavirus. We are Germanists, but of course we do also look at the German language in comparison and in context with what is happening in other languages and countries, and in context of the coronavirus it was, of course, very clear to see how different political cultures, let me put it that way, expressed themselves in different countries. So there were countries in which the people in government basically denied that there was a problem - Brazil was a very clear example of this - and then there are countries where liberalism was very strongly emphasized by the political masters. That happened, for example, in Switzerland, where the measures during the first wave were really not so very different to those in Germany, but were communicated differently, and we also had that, of course, in Sweden, where we can see very clearly that this kind of political culture and way of speaking about things actually does also have different implications, in this case for politics and the numbers of cases and so on. And then we have countries like France, where very quickly we see a metaphor that is present overall in the political culture, namely the metaphor of war. Macron spoke very quickly about being at war with the virus. That is, for example, a metaphor that to the present day we have rarely seen - or not seen at all - in the German discourse about Covid-19, at least not from the major players. Of course there are good reasons for that, that have something to do with the specific political culture here and that is actually reflected in the choice of different linguistic tools.

Ina Götze: It has to be said... or in keeping with this, the speech by Mrs Merkel yesterday (note: we are recording in the middle of December), where she made what was for her an extremely emotional appeal. Would you say we need more of that, or do politicians and the media generally communicate well?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, it was actually really fascinating what Angela Merkel said yesterday in the debate in the Bundestag. Everyone who saw it felt the same way... So fundamentally I would say that I think people have for a long time communicated very well in Germany. I mean, this can be seen from the high levels of acceptance of the measures that for a very long time were amazingly high in all of the surveys. When you ask yourself what purpose this communication serves, then you have to say, it was successful if it achieved its aim. In the beginning things were done in a relatively sober manner. However, towards the end of the year it began to crumble a little, and I would say that at that point a change in strategy was necessary, perhaps yesterday we experienced a bit of that. There are two possible ways of reacting to this. One way would be, so to speak, to deploy more pathos and bring out the big appeal. Actually, so far, that has not been a style or tone that suits Angela Merkel or that she is able to use well. Let’s look at how successful Barack Obama was with “Yes we can!” and how much emotion was in that phrase, and the extent to which Angela Merkel failed to communicate with the German equivalent “Wir schaffen das”. Simply because she does not have a good command of that style. In this debate in the Bundestag she actually did something very interesting, in that, in her speech she appealed, in quite an emotional way, for sobriety and objectivity. This is an extremely good tool and a very good chess move, in that she stressed, with reference to her own personal history in the GDR and so on, how important it is to her and that she will abide by it and that it is so important for us all to stick to facts and objectivity. That might actually be one way that she could solve that problem. But I believe that the more important way is, in fact, that politicians must explain more and by explain, I do not even necessarily mean the policies themselves or anything directly related to the virus, but that they must explain more. For example, they must explain federalism, which increasingly is no longer understood by the people. Why is it the case that things are done differently in each federal state in Germany? Or that they must also explain such things as well... if it is actually true that the transmission of the virus mainly happens in private spaces, then we have to do something about it and then it is important to continue to explain and perhaps this could be combined with emotion, that there are indeed very good reasons why in Germany politicians do not interfere in what happens in people’s living rooms like they do in the dictatorships here and there that are boasting of having dealt very well with the virus.

Ina Götze: Well so far I am finding the way they are doing things very good, very easy to understand. But yes, at times you notice that it would be good to have a little more background explanation, allowing us to have a little more information, and that is something that we notice often here at the university, that sometimes we lack morsels of information that would help us to grasp the background and have a better overall understanding.

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, and of course for people who are immersed in the topic, we who are specialists at the university and naturally politicians too, who day by day are surrounded by it, somehow that becomes difficult. So, at some point, of course, it is an expert problem that arises, and actually, we could really use advice about the simple translation work that is needed.

Ina Götze: Now, not only is there a new virus, but we are also using new words. Words like “social distancing”, “lockdown light”, “herd immunity”, these are all phrases that we haven’t had before, or that we simply, in our everyday language, have not used at all. Why, in an exceptional situation like this, do we develop so many new terms?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: This is quite simply the textbook example of what we were talking about earlier. Language can adapt unbelievably quickly to changed realities. In March we hadn't all properly understood what was going on, but to a certain extent the words were already in our vocabulary. As you rightly say, in some cases they are words from specialist language that have suddenly jumped across to everyday language. For example, before March, only a very few of us would have spoken about herd immunity. Incidences and R numbers or whatever, about which we talk day in, day out around the dinner table, were specialist words before. And other words are actually new to the German language, such as “lockdown”, because it was simply necessary to describe something that had never happened before in the Federal Republic - the measures that were implemented in the spring. The fascinating thing is that these words have by now, over the course of the year, actually become something like a mini linguistic history. Perhaps we can still remember, in the spring there was a bit of a terminology competition - was it a shutdown or a lockdown that was happening? - that stemmed from different usage contexts. Initially “lockdown” prevailed, but by autumn we had the impression, without ever having investigated it empirically, that “shutdown” had been reactivated a bit, because it doesn’t contain the naughty word “lock” or imply “locking in”. But overall, I think that “lockdown” did prevail, and has become an actual German word, a word that is part of the German language. Linguistically we would always demonstrate this by asking, is it productive, can the word be used in compounds, for example, and we are now quite naturally using a word like “Teil-Lockdown” (partial lockdown), a compound with “lockdown”, and that means that it has indeed probably become a word in the German language. We can all only hope that in future we will not need to speak about it as often...

Ina Götze: No, but at this point, a very warm welcome to the family! (Laughs)

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: (Laughs) Exactly! But I have a bit of a suspicion that the word will always be available in future whenever something is restricted, it will stand to reason that we speak of a mini-lockdown or something like that.

Ina Götze: Perhaps we won’t say “you’re grounded” in future, but instead “If you don’t toe the line, it’ll be lockdown for you!” (Laughs)

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: (Laughs) Exactly, quite possibly!

Ina Götze: To finish with, I'd like to turn to something unscientific. You are also a member of the jury for the “Ugliest Word of the Year”. What is your own personal ugliest word of 2020?

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, I have actually been a member for 10 years, and now the jury is changing personnel. As a group we have made up the jury for 10 years now, and we have decided that with this too, as with actually everything, it is good if every now and again a new wind blows and there is a new start. There is now a new jury, and I am delighted that the campaign, which I consider to be very important, will continue to be associated with Magdeburg, as my colleague, Kristin Kuck will be part of the new team. This means that the subject will still be part of our lives and we will keep working on it, and my colleague from the team will be involved in future. Yes, for me, in fact, the most fascinating words, when, as a jury, we discussed them... the jury has always in principle decided unanimously, in other words we never had any majority decisions, and we actually spent hours discussing them until we all agreed and had convinced one another. In fact, for me, the most interesting words have always been those that don’t come from a corner, don’t come from somewhere, where you expect somebody to be holding a pluralist, democratic debate, but which are a bit more low-key and which at first do not strike us as disturbing at all, and for me that was actually the term “systemrelevant“ (essential). My predecessor here in the department, Armin Burkhardt, wrote a nice essay this year in a journal that I publish with a colleague from Trier, about this expression “systemrelevant” (essential), where he showed beautifully that, one suspects, many of us might prefer to describe nurses as “essential” than the large banks that were ruined by speculation, which is where we first became familiar with the expression a few years ago. But that actually the semantics of the word itself do not correspond to a plural society, because, so to speak, they imply that there are non-essential jobs and activities, and that will very quickly become very problematic when one takes it to its logical conclusion. So, in this respect, my ugliest word of 2020 is actually “systemrelevant”.

Ina Götze: In this spirit, thank you very much for a fascinating discussion, and for talking with me so much about the topic of language.

Professor Dr. Kersten Roth: Yes, thank you very much too!

Ina Götze: I have learned a lot, and I hope our listeners out there have too. I hope that you will tune in next time and until then - I think it is still ok to say it - I hope you have a good start to the new year and stay healthy!


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