Word games

Saturday 19 December 2015


Language is the supreme medium of politics ... or is it? On the one hand, all of the concepts of politics - ideals, principles, policies, targets, goals - are usually and best expressed in language. On the other hand, modern media of communication give vast importance to the image, to static or moving pictures, which seize attention and give profound emotional force to ideas. The two images at the top intrigue me because they combine both language and image.

You can see the clever intention. The message of each poster consists primarily of a single word - in Catalan but, as you will doubtless have worked out, Impossible means, well, 'impossible', and Inviable means 'non-viable'. By crossing out the negative prefix in each case, the implication is that the heroic politician whose face is attached has managed to turn the negative into the positive by making what was considered impossible into something that can be achieved. The problem is that the trick doesn't work, for me.

Now as always with language, accurate interpretation depends to a large extent on context. As many of you will recall if you've been following this blog, here in Catalonia politics is currently dominated by the independence issue, a strong political campaign demanding the secession of Catalonia from Spain and the creation of a new Catalan Republic. The two faces above have been vitally influential figures in this independence movement, particularly Artur Mas, on the left (see the blog Promised Land, for more background). The aim of these posters, then, is to suggest that these guys have turned the 'impossible' idea of independence into the 'viable' idea of the Catalan Republic. So vote, vote, vote for us...

It's a jolly clever marketing trick, but I argue that it is flawed in execution - for two fundamental reasons, one graphic and the other linguistic.

The graphic trick of crossing out the suffix is supposed to emphasise turning the negative into the positive. The trouble is the crossing out is by a rather feeble, thin scribble - which conveys 'messy', 'unclear', and even worse, 'indecisive'. It would surely have been more visually striking to have used a big red cross. This would have conveyed 'strength', and would have added strong, enthusiastic colour to what is a rather dreary monochromatic image. It could also have implied, subliminally, 'mark your 'X' to vote for us'.

More significant from the language teacher's point of view is that, to me, the negative words 'Impossible' and 'Inviable' remain the more evident and memorable message of the posters. This is, I feel, for a very simple linguistic convention which the designers have ignored - the use of the capital letter. The use of the capital 'I' in both words stresses that the full word is the original, before the deletion - scribbling out the suffix remains a secondary change of meaning, so it never replaces the original core meaning. If the layout had been 'im Possible', the emphasis would have been securely on the positive aspect - but the actual effect is ' Impossible '.

If so, what these posters finally communicate is that Artur Mas and Francesc Homs and their independence project are Impossible and Inviable ... which is presumably precisely not what was intended!

Interpretation is not only affected by the context, but also by the reader's preconceptions and attitudes. Here I have to admit that I am sceptical and dismissive of the whole independence movement in Catalonia, so perhaps I am more likely to see ' Impossible ' than 'im Possible'. Perhaps ... but I think my analysis above is fairly objective. What's your view, as an impartial outsider ?


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