The Linguistics and Semiotics of Populist De-/Legitimisation – Torsten Leuschner

Ghent University

“Coming to the study of language from the perspective of ‘system’ or ‘core’ linguistics, I found a whole new world opening up when I first got interested in the political uses of language. Not surprisingly, my original interest in grammar and words continues to show through in my (still fresh) work in political discourse analysis, as I ask how speakers arrange language so as to convey a particular message in a given context. Which linguistic means do they choose, how do these means interact with other signs, and how do they precisely lend themselves to the purpose at hand?
The case study I have chosen for my presentation at the Populism and Nationalism conference is the language of ‘belonging’. I try to show how different senses of the verb ‘belong’ (in German: gehören) were used to convey a populist message in a campaign poster by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) just before the 2017 general election. While the dialectic of inclusion and exclusion inherent in the concept of ‘belonging’ is the decisive ingredient in the political message, the message itself could not have been construed without (i) the interaction of words with pictures, colours, space etc. in the overall design of the poster, and (ii) a silent appeal to the viewer’s pre-existing ‘knowledge’ of language and the world. My point is simple: by better understanding how language works in the context of populist propaganda, we may also hope to better understand, and thus more effectively resist, the strategies by which populism legitimises itself while delegitimising its political adversaries.”
– Torsten Leuschner, Ghent University