Connectivity Language

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, October 12, 2020. Photo: Christos S., Shutterstock.

Former president of the United States Donald Trump, certainly one of the shrewdest media manipulators of the 21st century up until now, in July 2018 called Russia’s Vladimir Putin a ‘competitor’, while refusing to call him ‘enemy’ or ‘friend’. In early (pre-COVID) 2020, Trump did use the words ‘very, very good friend’, this time to describe China’s Xi Jinping. And in September 2018, Trump said of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and himself that they ‘fell in love’. We might think especially this final example odd in the context of such serious and precarious international relations. It goes to show that the words we use to talk about (diplomatic) relationships do not always reflect reality accurately. Rather, they serve a communicative goal: we choose particular words to convey those aspects of reality that we want to highlight, because they are conducive to our purpose at that particular time.

The effect of employing language in this way can be explained in terms of semantic framing. Simply put, in cognitive linguistics it is widely recognised that the semantics of a word are to a large extent determined by the complex of other concepts, knowledge, experiences, ideas and emotions that language users connect to it. In a theory developed by Charles J. Fillmore, a word may in this way be connected to different semantic frames, which are often fluid and overlapping, in order to give meaning to the language that we produce (1976, 1982).

Trump and Vladimir Putin, competitors. Photo: Sergey Guneev, AP

The word ‘competitor’, for instance, conveys the idea of two entities with conflicting interests who, importantly, are a match for one another. From the mouth of Trump specifically, it evokes rivals in the market economy. ‘Enemy’ on the other hand is a hostile term that evokes a context of war and moreover describes the entity in question as a realistic threat. The word would have reminded people of the Cold War, and also might have made Putin seem far more powerful than would have served Trump’s playbook. On the other hand, the fact that he called Xi a ‘friend’, implies a non-hostile and relatively cordial relationship between equals, that is necessarily reciprocal. This description suited the context of the negotiation of a trade deal that the two countries were conducting at the time – implying especially that the deal must be mutually beneficial: what other deal would one make with a friend? In the case of the relationship with North-Korea’s dictator, finally, the term ‘falling in love’ of course carries romantic connotations. It implies a spontaneous and unconditional reciprocal affection which seems rather absurd in the context of Trump and Kim, but which importantly is the absolute antithesis of (nuclear) war, ever an important theme in negotiations with North Korea.

The words used by Trump thus themselves become powerful diplomatic agents: they characterise as well as define or even dictate the nature of the relationship. The specific words are chosen to direct not just the response of diplomatic partners, but also – and perhaps even more so – of public opinion regarding the relationships. The semantic frames that his language activates, grant it this agency.

In this inscription, cities from Macedonia acknowledge the inviolability of the Koan sanctuary of Asklepios. While making this diplomatic statement, they allude to the oikeiotes between themselves and Kos, their shared attitude of eunoia, and they issue official honour to the Koans. Photo: author. Click to enlarge.

The Hellenistic Greeks operated similarly. In their diplomatic interactions between cities, they made copious use of words like syngeneia (something like: ‘kinship’), oikeiotes (something like: closeness, familiarity, solidarity), philia (something like: friendship), eunoia (something like: good will) and, importantly, the language of honour. The meaning of these complex terms depended on common frames of reference, rather than on written rules. The concepts were used strategically to frame interactions with other cities, to shape them in a particular way. Identifying the key characteristics of the frames employed in Hellenistic polis-to-polis interaction will help us understand how this worked.

For this reason, in this part of the research I conduct a semantic frame analysis of the connectivity language used in the mediation of inter-city relationships in Kos and Priene. Doing so will elucidate the experiences and ideas that were evoked by the language in which cities communicated about their relationships: what did this language do?


Selected literature:

van Berkel, Tazuko A. 2019. The Economics of Friendship. Conceptions of Reciprocity in Classical Greece. Leiden: Brill.

Curty, Olivier. 1995. Les parentés légendaires entre cités grecques. Genève: Librairie Droz.

Fillmore, Charles J. 1976. “Frame Semantics and the Nature of Language.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: Conference on the Origin and Development of Language and Speech 280: 20-32.

—. 1982. “Frame Semantics.” In Linguistics in the Morning Calm. Selected Paers from SICOL-1981, edited by The Linguistic Society of Korea, 111-137. Seoul: Hanshin Publishing Company.

Fillmore, Charles J., and Collin Baker. 2012. “A Frames Approach to Semantic Analysis.” In The Oxford Handbook of Linguistic Analysis, edited by Bernd Heine and Heiko Narrog. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, Christopher P. 1999. Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Low, Polly. 2007. Interstate Relations in Classical Greece: Morality and Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, Lynette G. 1997. “Φιλία, εὔνοια and Greek Interstate Relations.” Antichthon 31: 28-44.

Peels, Saskia. 2016. Hosios: a Semantic Study of Greek Piety. Leiden: Brill.

Sahlins, Marshall. 2011. “What Kinship Is (Parts One&Two).” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17: 2-19.

Will, Edouard. 1995. “Syngeneia, Oikeiotès, Philia.” Revue de Philologie, de Littérature et d’Histoire Anciennes 69: 299-325.