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Linguistically Modified Foods? How Language May Shape Perception Of GMs

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As politicians are aware, you betcha language can impact public opinion. In the 2012 presidential election, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney had their word selections analyzed. Public reaction was sometimes more favorable than others, demonstrating how the power of words (or things remotely resembling them) should not be misunderestimated.

Alphabet Stew'ing: The language of GM can be confusing.

The ability of language to shape public perception isn’t limited to presidential campaigns. In his book, Genetically Modified Language: The Discourse of Arguments for GM Crops and Food, applied linguistics professor Guy Cook analyzes the GM debate from a linguistic perspective. Cook makes an analogy that language functions like a windowpane. In everyday life, information about the outside world is gathered by looking through the window; often there is little focus on the glass itself. He believes language can function similarly to the window. Just as a window pane can be warped or smudged, the same can happen with language, resulting in a distortion of how things are seen through it.

Using that analogy within the GM debate, a distorted window of language could influence how the issue is perceived by the public. Would something genetically modified sound more edible than something genetically engineered? Or do Frankenstein foods evoke imagery so monstrous that considering its potential benefits wouldn’t even be an option? Whether deliberate or unintentional, the use of biased words and metaphors can impact the public understanding of GMs and have wider political and economical effects.

Although not all information regarding GM is biased, when biased language is used, discussions surrounding the topic can become a war of words. As Cook notes, these debates often use words commonly associated with war in which battles are fought with attacks and assaults. Interestingly, the two topics--GMs and war--might not be separate. Instead, they may be part of broader international debate involving recurring themes and ideological differences.

This point is supported by a study examining the coverage of GMs by the British press and public reactions to it during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At times, GM coverage was displaced in order to focus on Iraq. However, at other times, the two topics became interrelated through the use of parallels, emotive epithets, and metaphors. Using corpus linguistic analysis, expert and non-expert interviews and focus group discussions, the study found: “Both in the press and in public reaction, the issue of GM was found to be intimately associated with other political events of the time, notably the invasion of Iraq.” Something to consider at a time when comparisons have been drawn between the current situation in Syria and Iraq.

Image Credits: by author, Nichole Renee

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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