Tuesday, February 08, 2011

"We Are All in This Together": analysing coalition cobblers

Today's Guardian features a great bit of polemic from George Monbiot that would make a nice bit of textual analysis for ENGA2. He starts with a reference to something David Cameron said about a tax cuts being off the agenda for the time being before looking at how a change in tax law means that some of the richest companies (the ones who got us in this mess) will now get exactly that. The whole piece is good (and pretty shocking) but it's the last two paragraphs that strike me as particularly effective:

Our political system protects and enriches a fantastically wealthy elite, much of whose money is, as a result of their interesting tax and transfer arrangements, in effect stolen from poorer countries, and poorer citizens of their own countries. Ours is a semi-criminal money-laundering economy, legitimised by the pomp of the lord mayor's show and multiple layers of defence in government. Politically irrelevant, economically invisible, the rest of us inhabit the margins of the system. Governments ensure that we are thrown enough scraps to keep us quiet, while the ultra-rich get on with the serious business of looting the global economy and crushing attempts to hold them to account.

And this government? It has learned the lesson that Thatcher never grasped. If you want to turn this country into another Mexico, where the ruling elite wallows in unimaginable, state-facilitated wealth while the rest can go to hell, you don't declare war on society, you don't lambast single mothers or refuse to apologise for Bloody Sunday. You assuage, reassure, conciliate, emote. Then you shaft us.

The use of pronouns, positioning of author, reader and government, the mixture of sentence lengths and syntactical patterns within them, all strike me as pretty effective and worth a closer look.

It's clear what Monbiot's agenda is here, so it's hardly what you'd call biased: he makes no attempt to hide his political colours, so it's not as if he's trying to trick us. Anyway, I think it's a neat example of how a writer deploys a whole range of linguistic techniques to make a convincing and passionate argument.

Below, I've put together a fairly simple list of bullet points for the kinds of language techniques you might want to look for in a text like this. If you're interested in finding out more about developing these approaches then have a look at emagazine 42 from December 2008 in which David Hyatt outlines a framework for critical literacy. Or go straight to the daddy of it all, Norman Fairclough, and his excellent book Language and Power.

A suggested framework for representation and language analysis

Pronoun use – which pronouns are used and how is the reader addressed? Are pronouns used to include and/or exclude? Is synthetic personalisation used to create a “faked” relationship with an imagined “ideal” reader?

Active/passive constructions – which voice is used within the text and how is agency handled? Can we see who is doing what to whom?

Modification – are adjectives used to evoke evaluation? How are adverbs used to present ideas? Are we being pushed in a particular direction by the ways in which nouns are modified?

Metaphor – are metaphors used in the text to present one idea in another’s terms?

Nominalisation – are processes and actions turned into nouns? Does this obscure agency (i.e. who carried out a process, or even that a process happened)?

Register and lexical choice – does technical, specialist or academic language create an impression of an educated and knowledgeable writer? Does a colloquial register seem to “bridge the gap” between reader and writer, creating a more believable tone?

Graphology – does the text present information in a graphical or pictorial form which might anchor particular meanings? Does the use of bullet points or headings “close down” other possibilities for discussion?

Rhetorical devices – does the author structure an argument and use language in such a way as to create a persuasive and convincing effect?

Sentence and clause linking – does the use of particular grammatical structures signal dependent relationships between elements in a sentence?

Sentence and clause structure – does the use or variation of particular sentence lengths and structures help create emphasis?

Tense and aspect – how does the use of past, present or future tense affect the meanings of the text? Does the use of aspect – progressive or perfective – affect meanings?

Subject positioning – from which perspective are events or issues perceived and recounted? Is one position given particular prominence and credibility?

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...