"Life is but ...": a comparative investigation of a contested concept
The analysis of denotational incongruencies by means of comparative investigations of structural field patterns has been introduced recently (see Jäkel 2002, 2006). Here I mean to suggest that this method of analysis can also be put to use in the investigation of certain kinds of contested concepts (Lakoff 1993), namely cases in which the field patterns themselves are under dispute. Such 'boundary disputes' occuring between different interest groups, parties, or ideologies, are not only a reminder of the fact that denotational boundaries are in general open to change over time. They can also reveal a particular sort of linguistic and conceptual interplay between language, culture, and ideology.
The example to be discussed will be the contested concept of life, which has recently come under serious dispute in the political discourse of Western countries such as the United States, England, or Germany. First, when does human life start? And when does it end? In recent years, debates about the ethics of abortion on the one hand, and of organ transplants on the other hand have left both entrance and exit boundaries of life contested. Opponents of abortion, e.g., favour conception instead of birth as the start of life, starting an argument that has been refuelled in the context of the most recent debate on embryonic stem cell research and so-called pre-implantation-diagnostics. Some advocates of organ transplants, on the other hand, argue their case by 'wedging in' a relatively new concept of brain death to replace the old definition of cardiac death.
My investigation focuses on the entrance boundary of life, with linguistic material taken from the public discourse on embryonic stem cell research going on in both English (United States) and German (Germany) in 2001. It will be shown how contested issues like these can be analysed as 'boundary disputes' over the denotations of some crucial lexical items, in which the diction used by opposed parties or interest groups gives voice to alternative classifications, categorizations, and cognitive models. In these and many more cases of contested concepts, what is at issue is the dislocating or relocating of denotational boundaries. From a linguistic perspective, examples like these do not only provide a brilliant chance to witness the natural diachronical change of field patterns happening 'in quick motion'. They may also give us a real insight into the complex and dynamic interplay between language and ideology. Thus, with the cognitive semantic field analysis of contested concepts, I hope to provide another useful tool for critical discourse analysis.
Jäkel, Olaf (2002) "'Morning, Noon and Night': Denotational Incongruencies between English and German", in: Cornelia Zelinsky-Wibbelt (ed.) Text Transfer: Metonymy and Metaphor, Translation and Expert-Lay Communication. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 163-182.
Jäkel, Olaf (2006) "'Defining the Definition of Marriage': Competing Cultural Models in Intercultural Comparison". L.A.U.D., Series A, Paper No. 688, Essen University.
Lakoff, George (1993) "Cognitive Cultural Theory". Plenary presentation at the 3rd International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, July 18-23, 1993, Leuven.