Part of series: DisTex

28 Palestinians Died

A Cognitive Grammar analysis of mystification in press coverage of state violence on the Gaza border


~900 words


Last modified: November 19th, 12,019 HE

Prof. Chris Hart of the Lancaster University Department of Linguistics and English Language delivered a presentation to the DisTex — Discourse and Text Analysis Research Group.

Hart’s intention was to demonstrate that the techniques of cognitive grammar can be usefully employed within critical discourse analysis. He began with an explanation of just what cognitive grammar entails, describing it as a credible model for how texture is achieved in texts. Cognitive grammar has been used within stylistics to elucidate the mechanisms behind senses of poignancy, ambience and claustrophobia in writing. It uses conceptual processes such as schematisation to explain what gives rise to textual effects. Within critical discourse analysis, Hart proposed, cognitive grammar can be applied to unearth ideology.

Hart then explained what he meant by mystification, or the ability of clauses to downplay or avoid the roles or intentions of actors, such as through nominalisation, agentless passives and intransitive verbs. From a critical perspective, mystification is used to conceal the persons responsible for discriminatory activities or to mask the effects of discriminatory activities on vulnerable grounds. He quoted Toolan in characterising newspapers as presenting the dominant ideology of a society, even when reporting events awkward to that ideology, which they make palatable through such mystification.

However, Hart stressed that linguistic exclusion doesn’t automatically lead to mystification and that we must be careful to avoid the intentionality trap. In addition, citing O’Halloran’s cognitive argument, social actors do not always need to be explicitly referenced to be represented within a mental picture. However, Hart believed that cognitive grammar was well-placed to account for the saliency of actors, and to counter the effect of repeated patterns of exclusion which can weaken mental representation.

The core tool of the cognitive grammar is the notion of construal, of the ability to conceive and portray the same situation in alternative ways (c.f. framing). Aspects of cognitive grammar relevant to mystification are the action chain model and the concept of prominence. The action chain model describes events in terms of energy transfer from a source (or agent) to a sink (or patient). Prominence was described in terms of profile/base relationships and trajectory/landmark alignments. For the term finger, the base would be the hand, wrist, forearm, etc. surrounding that, whilst the profile would be the finger itself. A trajectory is an entity conceived as having conceptual prominence within a profiled structure (e.g. the subject in a subject-object relation).

Hart moved on to media coverage of the 2018 demonstrations at the Gaza border, in which Israeli forces shot and killed a number of Palestinian protesters. Hart described that such a situation—one party shooting and killing another—would be a natural fit for a two-participant action chain, and that a departure from this likely represents an (ideological) discourse purpose. For example, the Guardian described the event in terms of protesters killed by soldiers, whilst the New York Times opted for Palestinians died during clashes. The use of such intransitives serves to profile one participant and to occlude the other; in this case, profiling the Palestinians and hiding the Israelis.

Hart described how profiling could move up- or down-stream on the action chain, leading to either patient- or agent-based mystification. Similarly, a text can encourage either sequential or summary scanning of events, with verbs (e.g., clashes with Israeli troops left 28 Palestinians dead) leading to sequential and nominalisation (e.g., clashes left 28 Palestinians dead) leading to summary scanning. In addition, the use of language such as clashes promotes an undeserved sense of bi-directionality, and the event-person metonym suggests that it is the event itself that somehow left people dead, rather than the actions of participants. Language like clashes and dozens dead also hide the fact that all such deaths were on one side.

These events, said Hart, would also fit a three-participant action chain in which an instrument—generally an inanimate object through which agents enforce their will on patients—is added. However, in the coverage of the violence snipers was repeatedly nominalised, obscuring the fact that these are actors with agency and not instruments, and so hold responsibility. Hart also discussed the use of different connectives, such as Palestinians hurled stones while Israelis used snipers, which hides a disparity in the level of violence on each side. Similarly, BBC News say that the Israelis opened fire after rioting, which suggests that it was a reasonable response and provoked by the Palestinians whilst also giving a sense that the opening of fire was legitimate, reactive or restorative.

Finally, Hart addressed the mystificatory affects of the choice of preposition following fire, and whether it made the path indicated more or less precise in respect to the landmark. Describing a goal as a place that a mover lands, which can be a point or points in space occupied by the landmark or a region surrounding the landmark, Hart highlighted the difference between protestors threw stones at soldiers, which implies targetting, and soldiers shot toward the protestors, which suggests a broader target and that the shooting were a side effect. Hart also briefly touched on intersemiotic mystification, or the alignment (or lack thereof) between pictures and captions.