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Review of  Language and Conflict

Reviewer: Lorena Hernandez Ramirez
Book Title: Language and Conflict
Book Author: Karol Janicki
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.1797

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Karol Janicki’s “Language and Conflict” is rooted in the idea that people often get into conflicts as part of language use in their daily lives. The same way language can drag us into conflicts, it can help us resolve them and prevent them.

In a note for teachers in the preface, the author explains that the book should be treated as a text drawing from a myriad of disciplines (discourse analysis, pragmatics, language in use), but with only one focus, that of conflict as related to language use.

The book is not intended for a specialized audience, which makes it a versatile volume that could be used as a textbook for students of language and communication, or for general educated readers interested in the topic with no particular knowledge of linguistics.

This book contains, besides the acknowledgments and a preface, a note for teachers, an introduction, eight chapters, a conclusion, a glossary of key words, references, and an index. In turn, each chapter includes at the end a story illustrating the topic of the chapter, as well as a summary with practical advice, notes, and suggestions for further reading.

In Chapter 1, “Mixing Words and Other Things. A Reason for Conflict”, the author makes a distinction between the world of words and the world of other things. It is crucial to understand the discrepancies between what people say and what they do. Mixing words and the real world is at the core of initiating conflict. Words only stand for other things, but are not those things. In other words, in order to avoid conflict (or resolve it when it is already happening), a distinction must be made between words themselves, and what they refer to.

The problem is that “We find it hard not to view symbols as naturally attached to things and difficult not to conflate them with the real thing” (p. 13). In this sense, the apparition of symbols in human articulated language marks the start of conflict in human communication.

Language users must be aware of the difference between the referent and their own experience. When we differ in our conception of a word, but are able to discuss these differences, the possibility for conflict is less likely.

Chapter 2 is titled “Framing: How We Talk Differently about the Same Thing”. First, Janicki offers an overview of some definitions and theoretical underpinnings, and then, building on some of these, he explains framing as follows: “when you hear words and combinations of words in a variety of grammatical structures, you understand them via mental images, as pictures coming to your mind […] No matter how complicated the mental image, you automatically get one in your mind once you hear a word or word combination, independent of the type of grammatical construction in which you hear the word or phrase […] These words condition (frame) the way in which you understand and engage in the world around you” (p. 35). The key to avoid conflict here is for the language user to be able to consider alternative framing, so that one thing can be imagined and talked about in different ways.

Along a continuum in which conflict presents itself at one end, and peace at the other extreme, framing offers a great flexibility in how non-linguistic reality is presented (p. 56).

In Chapter 3, “Emotions: How Words Can Influence Our Reasoning”, drawing from some aspects of evolutionary theory, the author exposes how negative emotions are the ones that arise more quickly and stay longer in our brains, and therefore, attention must be paid to words that arouse these emotions in order to avoid conflict.

Chapter 4, “Descriptions, Inferences and Evaluations: Different Levels of Abstraction and Conflict”, as it states, distinguishes between descriptions, inferences, and evaluations made through language, providing numerous examples to illustrate each. The key here is that both inferences and evaluations are often taken as descriptions of facts. The confusion and mixing of these three elements constitutes one of the major causes for conflict. This can be alleviated by checking our language against reality (p. 105).

In Chapter 5, “Euphemisms, Dysphemisms and Political Correctness: How We Can Get Misdirected”, Janicki first offers a historical overview of the social movement known as political correctness and how it came about in the Western world. Political correctness movements have met strong criticism as well as defense. Crucial to this movement are the notions of euphemism (words that are used to replace potentially offensive language) and dysphemism (the opposite of a euphemism, that is, the explicit use of offensive words). The author explains how lists of ‘offensive words’ can be easily contested, since “as with all other words, offence and harshness or mildness and pleasant associations are not in the euphemisms and dysphemisms. They reside in people’s minds” (p. 124). The consideration of a word as offensive or not depends ultimately on the individual person in an individual context, the same way that “the map is not the territory” (p. 129).

The remainder of the chapter deals with a controversial issue, that of euphemisms as deception. Euphemisms can mislead us and manipulate us. The deceit “is in a dramatic violation of social agreements about the use of words, in blurring the meaning we normally assign to words, in priming us to invoke positive associations for things that would otherwise seem unpleasant, unrewarding or downright atrocious to us. By being exposed to the euphemisms in question, we become indifferent towards something we would otherwise be appalled by” (p. 126).

In Chapter 6, “Communicative Competence: How We May Misinterpret Other People’s Linguistic Behavior”, after briefly exposing what linguistic competence means as referred to by Chomsky, the author highlights the importance of communicative competence and the knowledge of rules that will deem language sociolinguistically appropriate to particular situations. Along the continuum of communicative competence rules there exists an enormous range of variations. The awareness of this by the language speaker will diminish the chance of conflict.

Chapter 7, “Meaning: How Conflicts Revolve around the Definitions of Words”, treats the concept of meaning and the fact that it serves as the thread uniting all the previous chapters. The author distinguishes between the classical approach and the prototype approach to meaning. The former “treats meaning as resident in words and as discrete and definable objectively” (p.175), and therefore does not allow for understanding conflict; if anything, it only exacerbates it. On the other hand, the prototype approach sees meaning “as resident in the language user’s mind and as potentially fuzzy, open, doubtful and definable subjectively” (p. 176). This approach promotes peaceful cooperation.

At the end of the chapter, Janicki highlights the need for language awareness as a way of “undermining the position of the powerful in matters linguistic” (p. 176).

In Chapter 8, “Linguistics for Peace Education”, the author explains what can be done about the destructive potential of language when it leads to conflict. Early education to at least some beliefs, as well as introducing aspects of linguistics into the K-12 school system are crucial to the purpose. Topics such as ‘meaning’ and ‘words and what they refer to’, are fundamental for any further linguistic awareness, and key in the teaching of ‘peace linguistics’.

Finally, in the conclusion, Janicki points out again that failing to distinguish between words and what they refer to in turn becomes a failure to distinguish between descriptions and inferences, which will lead to conflict. The author suggests to take a trip to the Matsés to “help us distinguish between reality, words, descriptions, inferences and fantasies” (p. 201). The language of these tribespeople requires them, through linguistic forms, to make a distinction between what they have personally experienced, and what they infer.

In order to diminish linguistic deceit, we must counter-attack with non-linguistic facts. Counter-attacking with more words would be just words against more words.


Janicki’s “Language and Conflict” is an easy-to-read volume on a topic that is receiving much attention lately in several fields, such as discourse analysis and cross-cultural communication. What makes this work different is that it focuses on the several linguistic phenomena that are involved in conflict. Looking at conflict through a myriad of subtopics, each chapter conveniently offers an abundance of examples, a real story or anecdote that illustrates the subtopic being treated, and a section with practical advice. This section on practical advice may seem redundant at times, but only because the common goal throughout the whole book is always learning how to avoid or alleviate conflict in language use.

The author has achieved the objectives set forward in the preface and the introduction, which are, namely, presenting a series of topics related to language and conflict, and trying to answer questions that arise from these topics in an attempt to solve potential problems.

Each chapter is supported by specific theoretical frameworks; however, it came as a surprise that little attention was paid to the field of pragmatics in the chapter dealing with communicative competence. Misunderstandings caused by lack of communicative competence, that is, by misunderstanding of sociocultural rules, are extensively common in language use, especially in instances of cross-cultural communication.

When reading this book, one cannot help but wonder “What is language? What is conflict?” However, one soon realizes that asking the “what is x?” sort of question would defeat the purpose of the book itself, since the author asserts that there is no one answer to any given question. Nevertheless, Janicki states in his conclusions: “The discussion throughout this book promotes one view of language and conflict” (p. 199). I will ask, then: what is exactly this view of language and conflict?

Finally, the last section of the conclusions could benefit from elaborating on what non-linguistic facts are, those facts that seem to be helpful to counter-attack words and resolve conflicts.

This book contains an excellent amount of information on the topic of conflict as related to language use. In fact, each one of the chapters could constitute a volume on its own. The text leaves the door open then for further research on each one of the topics covered. A fine starting point for future studies could be planning a detailed trip to the Matsés.
Lorena Hernandez Ramirez is currently a Language Lecturer at New York University. Her research interests include Language Ideologies and the intersection between language and politics. She is also interested in the pedagogy of Spanish.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781137381408
Pages: 244
Prices: U.K. £ 20.99