Carnegie Mellon University

Constructing a Projected Event: A Critical Linguistic Analysis of the 1990 Persian Gulf Conflict

Author: Patricia Dunmire
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1996

This dissertation examines the linguistic processes through which a projected event was constructed in the New York Times (NYT) and Washington Post (WP). The constructive processes of these papers were analyzed by examining the first 3 weeks reporting of the 1990 Persian Gulf conflict. The framework and method of critical linguistics (Fowler, 1991; Fowler & Kress, 1979) and the discourse analytic approach of European Social Psychology (Potter & Wetherell, 1987) were adopted to address two questions: (1) How were the accounts linguistically constructed? (2) What rhetorical functions were served by those constructions? Both papers defined the Gulf conflict in terms of a projected event in which Iraq would invade Saudi Arabia in the near future. The linguistic construction and function of this projected event were explored by examining the evidential qualification of various epistemic aspects of the event. This dissertation shows how the hypothetical status of the Iraq/Saudi Arabia Scenario was suppressed such that it appeared as an autonomous event unfolding as part of the Gulf conflict.

Analysis of the local conflict between Iraq and Kuwait shows how both papers marginalized that conflict and positioned it as an indication of a more general threat Iraq posed to the Persian Gulf region. By marginalizing the Iraq/Kuwait conflict, both papers created a context in which the Iraq/Saudi Arabia scenario was seamlessly incorporated into the reports. Analysis of the evidential qualification of the scenario revealed that it was coded primarily as hearsay information attributed to U.S. spokespersons. However, through the use of nominalizations, the scenario was transformed from being the object of speculation into an assumed event. This nominalized discourse served two rhetorical functions: (1) it naturalized the Iraq/Saudi Arabai scenario by removing it from the specific circumstances of its production and interpretation; (2) it positioned the scenario as the presupposed, unchallengeable context of the Gulf conflict. As such, the scenario functioned as the context in which U.S. military plans and actions were pursued.

The data and method underlying this dissertation provide insight into the objectifying features of language and, more generally, into how the constitutive processes of language practices are realized in the mundane linguistic structures comprising social texts.