Language and Deception: Distortion and Socially Constructed Reality


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name will smell as sweet.”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet

Over the weekend, a couple of my friends have watched Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Planet of the Humans. The one aspect that caused the most bewilderment among them seems to be the rhetorical element. They were literally shaken that what had appeared to them a solid reality was perhaps nothing more than a web of words.


Take the term “biomass” for instance. Many people are shocked to realize it can also refer to… wood – as in trees and forests, something you would normally associate with the “planet’s lungs”, certainly not something you’d think is a great thing to burn (on top of everything else we’re already burning). And yes, it does include garbage and landfill gas, but also crops and other types of fuels.

Such is the power of names…” one of my friends mused. “Using a label to deceive the population and to do it gracefully.” And certainly, she was on to something here. While words by themselves – and especially the meanings and connotations they develop – are certainly enough to evoke mental concepts and a psychological reality, imagine coupling them with additional signs that anchor and reinforce that meaning: the fresh green of lush vegetation or the heavenly blue of the clear, unpolluted sky. Such logos can become nearly irresistible. And propaganda often relies on formulaic language to promote limited thinking.


In the beginning, there was the Word“, the book of Genesis proclaims. As homo significans, we’ve been creating and assigning meaning for as long as we have existed. When one connotation is used and reiterated often enough, sheer repetition has the potential to establish that particular interpretation as the only “normal” or “natural” one, so much so that it becomes “unchallengeable commonsense” (Barker and Galasinski, 2001). Such stable connotations are called “myths” (see Barthes, 1977) and are often employed to “purify” things, or to simplify an otherwise complex reality.

According to Chomsky and others, our reality is socially constructed, and we do this by deletion, distortion and generalization. Not even photographs are true analogons of reality (again, Barthes): in fact they are a staged reduction of reality, and they, too, can carry cultural codes (or reinforce the linguistic message.)

In our Judeo-Christian map of meaning, Adam was granted by God the right to name the animals. With it came great responsibility. Linguistics 101 usually teaches us that language is an arbitrary system of symbols. According to Ferdinand de Saussure himself, signs are arbitrary, i.e. the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. Why is, after all, the thing “tree” called “Baum” in German, “arbre” in French, and “copac” in Romanian? Even reading Shakespeare above, one is inclined to believe that words develop naturally starting from an undeniable, tangible, immediate and shared physical reality, simply by uttering some sound pattern.

And that may well have been the case at the very beginning of language. But then came Aristotle and others – and classical rhetoric let the genie out of the bottle. We realized we can exploit word choice, figures of speech, and compositional techniques to make an impression. Then came modern psychology with its in-depth work on persuasion. The post-structuralists and deconstructionists claimed that language not only reflects, but actively shapes the world. That we have no access to a fixed landmark outside of linguistic processing; that all reality is textual.


So, is language still arbitrary? If all reality is textual, and if a certain signifier is enough to evoke a particular signified (i.e. a psychological reality) for which, perhaps, very little or no “objective” physical basis exists, how can we protect ourselves? How alert must we be, how far must we go in questioning everything? Are we living in the post-truth era? Is everything fake? Or are manipulation and misunderstanding built into human communication? Are the encoding and decoding of the same message always bound to deliver two different results, based on the participants’ different codification systems?

Does the way texts are produced and consumed nowadays make us more or less prone to propaganda? Following Bourdieu (1991), Donald Matheson in Media Discourses – Analyzing Media Texts talks about the “oracular power of dominant institutions in society”, and about the “power of media institutions as self-appointed representatives of the masses”. The meanings found in the media are shared, he says, but the power to create those meanings is not. “Authoritative discourses” are those ways of speaking and representing phenomena that have come to seem obvious to us. As gatekeepers, media outlets often control what is newsworthy. But do they also actively assign meaning and/or help exclude alternative interpretations? Who “owns” the interpretation, after all? Where does it all start and how far can it go? And what about the silicon “myth”: that computer chips are basically produced from sand, something we have endless amounts of?


According to Carol Cohn (1987), language is fully capable of distorting perception; adopting the terminology often means unwittingly buying into the ideology (see also “clean bombs” and “surgical strikes” in the work she did on euphemisms in defense circles). As she hears herself utter the words, the speaker’s perception changes. Euphemisms, acronyms, labels all conjure up a new, more harmless reality before her.

When a term like “biomass” appears, is this an honest attempt at describing something that has an equivalent in the physical world – a perfectly legitimate name for a big lump of biological material, containing various amounts of each of its constituents, therefore difficult to describe more precisely? Or are we already talking about politically or economically-motivated linguistic engineering? Let’s have a look at the morphemes it comprises: “bio”, which has the dictionary meaning of “relating to life, of living beings”, has a positive, vital connotation; while “mass” – “a large body of matter with no definite shape”, with its inferred plenty (even surplus) seems amorphous and uninteresting enough to keep us from investigating further… The desired connotation would not have a hard time asserting itself. Well, who can tell? You be the judge of that.

So, are words only intermediaries used to hide or distort reality? Probably not. Yet they have the potential to deceive and sway. Can verbal communication ever be 100% “truthful”, or is it fundamentally flawed, a mere screen placed between non-communicable psychological realities, a play of light and shadows, a mask? Or a form of contagion? Is our physical reality really so complex that we cannot be trusted with it? Are we unable to make sense of it without some form of simplifying narrative put forward by “gatekeepers” or “elites”? Or is our access to reality inherently truncated? Are the battles of the future the battles for our mind and soul, or have they always been?

YourTranscreator is looking forward to your views on this.

P.S. An additional example of dominant discourses and the power to define things: in a draft proposal the EU has recently excluded oil and gas from the definition of “fossil fuels”. More information here or here.

#linguistics #register #codes #semiotics #mediaanalysis #discourse