Language and Discourse in the Press

and Critical Linguistics

The language of the press is a code in which social happenings, events and people are represented. It constructs a kind of social reality, and hence makes sense of the world, via 'the conventional meaning-categories embodied in our society's code' (Fowler, 1991: 3). Thus, the language of the press (and language in general) is not a neutral medium through which reality is presented to its readers. However, reality is also not wholly and absolutely determined by language, as conceptualised in the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism. Instead, I subscribe to the view that language is a code which 'predisposes' its readers to think, make sense of, and understand their experience in terms of conventional meaning-categories felt to be 'common sense' in the overall discourse of that particular society (Fowler, 1991: 30).

'Discourse' is then understood as a set or group of statements that are regulated in some way where there seems to be a common coherence and force to them. Hence media discourse can be seen as having a "systematicity of the ideas, opinions, concepts, ways of thinking...which are formed within a particular context" (Mills, 1997: 17).

The discursive statements in newspapers must thus be understood in terms of the wider social discursive framework of the society; what can be said in the newspapers has to be seen in light of what can be said in the wider social context. As such, newspaper discourse becomes a social practice (Fairclough, 1989) as it has its effects upon social structures and contributes to the achievement of social continuity or social change, and vice versa. It is a dialectical relationship which sees the two influencing each other continuously. Thus, social structures not only determine news discourse, i.e., what is reported, how it is reported etc, but they are also a product of the discourse itself, i.e., the way something is reported affects how we view and understand it.

The knowledge that the press constructs its discourse has come as a result of power struggles. That is, what is considered 'common sense' knowledge is a result of struggle and negotiation amongst differing and conflicting ideologies over whose version of an event should be sanctioned (Mills, 1972: 21). Thus, the knowledge we consume about the world around us as provided by the press is often the product of the subjugation of other forms of knowledge. For example, it has become 'common sense' knowledge that when the press describes a female rape victim as one who dresses provocatively, it is assumed that a large part of the blame for the rape is hers. Within feminist discourse, this 'commonsensical truth' is contested and rejected outright as 'the reason' for the rape. However, because feminist discourse is not the dominant discourse of the day, such feminist knowledge will not be the kind to be privileged in the news discourse.

Thus, the dominant ideology of a particular group, more often than not, is able to exercise its power when its knowledge is carried in the media discourse as 'common sense' knowledge.

To create awareness of such issues that will then result in meaningful negotiations, a systematic and critical method of discourse analysis will be needed, and it to this type of linguistic framework that I will now turn my discussion.

"Critical Linguistics is the study from an avowedly political perspective" (Mills, 1995: 10). Critical Linguists like Norman Fairclough, Roger Fowler, Bob Hodge and Gunther Kress have been concerned with the development of a political analysis of text, and this concern stems from their stand that discourses construct and constitute social entities and relations, rather than just reflecting them (Mills, 1997).

To the critical linguists then, language is a social phenomenon, i.e., "the form of language in use are a part of, as well as a consequence of, social process" (Fowler et al., 1979: 26). Fairclough (1992) talked about the dialectical relationship between language and society, and that discourse is a social practice in the sense that it constitutes and changes the three dimensions of the social: knowledge, social relations and social identity. These correspond to the three major functions of language: the ideational function (representing the world and our experience), the relational function (constituting and changing social relations), and the identical function (constituting and changing social identities) (Fairclough, 1992: 8). Halliday (1985), whose functional model influences the work of these critical linguists, incorporated the second and third functions into his interpersonal function.

Hence one can then begin to understand the effects of society upon discourse; for example, how gender stereotypes are valued and legitimised as the dominant discourse in texts like the common broadsheet press. The power of a dominant discourse (and hence the dominant group) comes precisely from the way it constitutes the social, and by the discourse conventions becoming 'natural' and 'commonsensical' so that "an acquiescent, uncritical reader...has already (become) socialised into sensitivity" (Fowler et al., 1979: 185).

Since discourse can constitute the dominant knowledge, social relations and ways of being and identification of a society, resulting in dominant practices and conventions, alternative discursive practices which challenge them is also possible. To enable this to happen, consciousness of the issues must first be raised, and I agree with Fairclough that such consciousness "is a precondition for the development of new practices and conventions which can contribute to social emancipation" (Fairclough, 1992: 10).

Hence, there arises the need for critical linguistics because this paradigm seeks, by analysing the details of linguistic structure with respect to the socio-historical situation of the text, to bring to consciousness the patterns of belief and value which are encoded in the language (Fowler, 1991: 67). The prime focus of critical linguistic analysis is thus to uncover the encoded ideological assumptions taken as 'natural' within discourse.

Essential Reading:

  • Fairclough, Norman. 1989. 'Language and Power'. London: Longman.
  • Fairclough, Norman. 1992. 'Critical Language Awareness'. London: Longman.
  • Fairclough, Norman. 1995. 'Media Discourse'. London: Edward Arnold.
  • Fowler, Roger. 1991. 'Language in the News. Discourse and Ideology in the Press'. London: Routledge.
  • Fowler, Roger. 1996. Article on 'On Critical Linguistics' in 'Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis' ed by Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa and Malcolm Coulthard. London: Routledge, 3-14.
  • Fowler, Roger, Bob Hodge, Gunther Kress and Tony Trew. 1979. 'Language and Control'. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 
  • Halliday, M.A.K. 1985. 'Introduction to Functional Grammar'. London: Edward Arnold.
  • Hodge, Bob and Gunther Kress. 1993. 'Language as Ideology' (Second Edition). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. 
  • Kress, Gunther. 1985. 'Linguistic Processes in Sociocultural Practice'. Victoria: Deakin University Press. 
  • Mills, Sara. 1995. 'Feminist Stylistics'. London: Routledge.
  • Mills, Sara. 1997. 'Discourse'. London & New York: Routledge.


More by :  Attreyee Roy Chowdhury

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