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Review of  Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Parliamentary Discourse

Reviewer: Tina Busch
Book Title: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Parliamentary Discourse
Book Author: Paul Bayley
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 15.2665

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Date: Tue, 21 Sep 2004 12:37:23 +0200
From: Tina Jahn
Subject: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Parliamentary Discourse

Editor: Bayley, Paul
Title: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Parliamentary Discourse
Series: Discourse Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture 10
Publisher: John Benjamins
Year: 2004

Tina Jahn, Englisches Seminar, TU Braunschweig

Edited by Paul Bayley, this book consists of a collection
of nine different papers, which discuss the issue of
parliamentary talk as a sub-genre of political language
from a cross-cultural perspective. The data is taken
exclusively from full sittings of national parliaments in
western democracies.

The first six papers following the introduction deal with
comparisons between debates in national parliaments of
European Union (EU) members, while the next two papers deal
with parliamentary talk in a non-European setting. Only the
last paper deals with the theoretical issue of the context
of parliamentary discourse.

In the introduction, Bayley introduces parliamentary talk
as a sub-genre of political language and discusses both the
characteristics of a "typical parliament" and the ways in
which different parliaments influence the use of language.
A combination of systemic functional linguistics (SFL),
critical discourse analysis, and corpus linguistics
functions as the basis for analysis. The main objectives of
the papers are both the study of data to verify the
soundness of theoretical models and methodological
approaches as well as to find out what a theory can tell us
about texts. Apart from these theoretical issues, Bayley
also mentions possible weaknesses of the approach by
referring to the danger of misrepresentation of
parliamentary discourse, as the focus is not on routine
actions but rather on extraordinary events (e.g. the U.S.
House debate on the impeachment of the President). Another
weak aspect is the fact that the analyses are based on
official written transcripts that lack the natural
spokenness of parliamentary talk. One might also criticize
that the approach is eurocentric, even anglocentric, since
only European or Anglo-American countries are in the focus
of analysis. According to Bayley, however, the models and
frameworks presented in this collection can be applied to
any other parliamentary discourse.

The collection of the papers starts with Cornelia Ilie's
"Insulting as (un)parliamentary practice in the British and
Swedish parliaments: A rhetorical approach" (pp. 45 - 86).
Her corpus-based comparative analysis of parliamentary
discourse of the British House of Commons and the Riksda,
the Swedish Parliament, mainly deals with two issues:
firstly, the identification of general characteristics of
institutional insults and secondly, the more specific
manifestations of culture-specific insults rituals. She
provides evidence for the claim that the preference of
certain types of rhetorical means can be traced back to the
country's political tradition. Apart from a number of
features shared by the two institutions, the actual
language displays institution-specific and culture-specific
differences, such as the use of irony as a rhetorical
strategy. This strategy is accepted and widely employed in
the British parliament but not among Swedish MPs.

In "Negotiating conflict - Interruptions in British and
Italian parliamentary debates" (pp. 87 - 109), Cinzia
Bevitori also explores a particular form of discursive
behavior, namely the occurrence of interruptions, a kind of
turn-taking device, in British and Italian parliamentary
debates. Whereas interruptions in Britain are authorized
under certain conditions, interruptions in Italian debates
are not authorized but still occur frequently. Bevitori
investigates similarities and differences between the two
parliaments with regard to the form of interruptions. The
results show that British MPs normally use questions, which
are addressed to the chair, as an interrupting device. In
contrast to that, Italian MPs use imperatives as well as
exclamations which often address other MPs. This
communicative practice leads to a rather aggressive
atmosphere in which personal insults occur frequently.

The paper on "Consent and dissent in British and Italian
parliamentary debates on the 1998 Gulf Crisis" (pp.111 -
149) by Nicoletta Vasta is also based on a comparative
analysis of British and Italian debates but the focus is
here on a specific event which is the topic of debate in
both parliaments. The author investigates the construction
of power and solidarity in official statements during the
1991 Gulf War by looking at discursive macrostructures and
textual microstructures which underlie the construction of
both consent and dissent. The contrastive analysis of
British and Italian debates reveals that some of the
arguments which are crucial in one context are absent in
another. Furthermore, some of the argumentative strategies
"appear to serve diametrically opposed persuasive purposes
in the two settings" (p. 134). In accordance with this
result, the collocations of seemingly related English and
Italian words differ in meaning and highlight the lack of
one-to-one correspondence.

As in the previous paper, the data in this paper is taken
again from British and Italian parliamentary talk. In
"Legitimising and informative discourse in the Kosovo
debates in the British House of Commons and the Italian
Chamber of Deputies" (pp. 151 - 184), Denise Dibattista
carries out a text-based analysis of discursive strategies
used by British and Italian members of parliament (MPs).
Although the same issue is debated in both parliaments, the
linguistic resources, i.e. the syntactic and lexical
patterns, are distributed and used in different ways in the
two settings. Whereas the Italian data shows evidence for
legitimizing discourse in the form of, for example,
impersonal constructions, vague and general expressions or
the use of euphemisms, there is a tendency in Britain to a
more explicit, informative discourse with a less persuasive
function. These differences might express the different
attitudes of the two nations towards the events. (I would
move this sentence to the end because it ties up nicely
what you've just said)

In "Threat and fear in parliamentary debates in Britain,
Germany and Italy" (pp. 185 - 236), the authors, Paul
Bayley, Cinzia Bevitori, and Elisabetta Zoni, examine how
lexemes in the semantic area of DANGER have been used in
British, German, and Italian parliamentary debates, as well
as in the press, to construct the idea of danger. In the
first part, the authors' aims are to find out if the three
languages have similar grammaticalizations of terms which
belong to the semantic area of DANGER and to compare the
intensity of these lexical items. In the next step, a
comparison is carried out of what MPs in the three
countries consider as the main source of danger. The
results reveal important differences: while it was the
European Union itself which was seen as the external threat
in British parliamentary talk, it was the failure of the
integration process which German and Italian politicians
introduce as the main source of danger.

Paul Bayley and Félix San Vicente examine in "Ways of
talking about work in parliamentary discourse in Britain
and Spain" (pp. 237 - 269) specific collocation patterns
used by British and Spanish MPs to talk about "work". These
discourse patterns are defined as "recurrent and pre-
fabricated patterns" in a language which communicates ideas
and which may be formed by, for example, lexical choices.
The results show that the meanings of "work"-related words
are determined by their surroundings, i.e. their
collocations. There are a lot of similarities with regard
to the distribution of the lexis of WORK but British and
Spanish parliamentary talk differs in the lexicalization of
the various meanings.

In "'Truth, justice and the American way' The APPRAISAL
SYSTEM of JUDGEMENT in the U.S. House debate on the
impeachment of the President, 1998" (pp. 271 - 300) Donna
Miller looks at a most extraordinary event in the U.S.
House of Representatives, namely the debate about the
impeachment of President Clinton in 1998. Being aware of
the fact that this debate is only a single textual
instance, the author attempts to explore typical meaning
making practices, i.e. the construction of speaker
orientation and subject positioning, as well as the
American belief and value system. After providing a brief
overview of appraisal theory, an ongoing project in SFL
which explores how speakers construct subjectivity and
intersubjectivity, for example, Miller looks at the system
of 'judgment' or, in other words, how speakers evaluate
other people's behavior by the use of words like 'truth'
and 'justice'. The results show that appraisal is not only
realized in lexis but also in more global patterns which
involve all levels of linguistic analysis. The various
meanings of 'truth' vary according to the respective
speaker position.

In contrast to the previous papers, "Parliamentary
discourse when things go wrong - Mapping histories,
contexts, conflicts" (pp. 301 - 337) deals with data taken
from Mexican parliamentary discourse. The author, Teresa
Carbó, addresses a number of general methodological
questions such as the role of the analyst or the role of
history, the importance of cognitive dimensions or the
concept of context. In addition, she looks at parliamentary
practices and illustrates how a better understanding of
complex processes can be achieved, namely by the graphical
representation of discourse features.

The last paper of the collection, "Text and context of
parliamentary debates" (pp. 339 - 372) by Teun A. van Dijk,
deals with the theoretical issue of context. In his attempt
to provide a contextual approach to parliamentary
discourse, the author reviews earlier studies on context,
in particular the theory of context in SFL. His main
criticism of the SFL concept of context is that it is
inadequate and incomplete. It is not only the case that the
main parameters which define the social situation, i.e.
field, tenor and mode, are rather vague and heterogeneous,
but there are also important categories, i.e. mental
aspects such as purpose or knowledge, that are missing. Van
Dijk then introduces his own theory of context which is
based on the claim that a context should be defined as a
mental model constructed by the participants of or about
communicative situations and events. According to van Dijk,
context consists of macro- and micro-level categories. In
parliamentary discourse, the macro-level category 'domain',
for example, can be described as the domain of politics.
Further categories are 'global actions', 'institutional
actors' and, on the micro-level, 'setting', 'time', 'local
actions', 'participants' and their 'roles' as well as
'cognition'. This concept of context is applied to real
data taken from a debate in the British House of Commons.

This book provides an interesting summation on the issue of
parliamentary discourse from a cross-cultural perspective.
In the introduction, the reader gets the necessary
theoretical background which facilitates further
understanding and provides the possibility to classify the
papers in a broader linguistic framework.

The papers adhere consistently to the theoretical framework
applying it to a variety of different examples from
European, American, and Mexican parliamentary discourse.
This selection of papers gives the reader not only the
opportunity to explore how functional linguistics can be
applied to the genre of political language but also to
learn more about similarities and differences of
parliamentary talk in different countries.
The analyses show that language plays an important, if not
THE most important role in the political institution
'parliament'. The choice of language is influenced by
various factors: the form of the parliament, the political
stance as well as the historical and cultural background
and sometimes even the geographical location. The
theoretical paper by van Dijk calls attention to the
problem of 'context' in contemporary linguistics by
offering an interesting new approach. One can only hope
that this paper functions as a prelude to future debate
among linguists from various disciplines about an adequate
and comprehensive theory of context.

Linguists interested in either systemic functional
linguistics, political discourse, or cross-cultural issues
will find this book to be a very good starting point for
future research. Previous knowledge, however, in the area
of functional linguistics, in particular, might be helpful
and might facilitate understanding of complex issues, such
as the appraisal system in Miller's paper.

Tina Jahn is a graduate student in the English Department
at the University of Braunschweig (Germany). Her main areas
of research interest include general pragmatics,
intercultural communication and media linguistics.