How Language Has The Power To Influence Global Politics

Language – we effortlessly use it in our everyday lives to communicate. We are seemingly in complete control of how we employ it, be it for expressing gratitude, sadness or even insult. We simply use words to express what we think - or so we believe.

1. Mai 2018 · Ann-Sophie Freund

An article published in the eighth issue of Honours Review. Honours Review is a publication of students at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

Honours Review

In her article “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” (1987), Carol Cohn argues that language is by no means a simple tool for communication. It can have great influence on the way its speakers think and, subsequently, act. (1) Cohn builds her argumentation around one particular language, which she calls the technostrategic language, that is used by defense intellectuals, a group of professionals in defense discourse, more specifically, in the field of nuclear arms. According to Cohn, the technostrategic language affects the way defense intellectuals conceive of, think about, and decide on nuclear issues.(1) This statement implies that language can have far-reaching consequences, well beyond common expectations. If the language of defense intellectuals affects the way they think and consequently decide on nuclear issues, this would imply that language has the power to influence global politics.

Nuclear arms no longer play the role they used to, but Cohn´s idea may be applied to other, more current aspects of global politics, such as the present “refugee crisis” in Europe. It is of relevance to examine the relationship between language and thought – how they influence one another – more closely. This essay investigates Cohn’s theory on the reciprocal influence of thoughts and technostrategic language of defense intellectuals by applying it to recent linguistics. First, Cohn´s paper will be introduced in greater detail, next relevant linguistic background information will be provided. Finally, this linguistic background will be applied to the idea of technostrategic language and its implications in our current times.

Technostrategic language

Carol Cohn, a feminist international relations scholar, discusses the influences of language on its speakers. While working in a defense and technology center in the United States for one year during the late Cold War, Cohn discovered that the defense intellectuals who were working there used a specialized language variant, which she called technostrategic.(1) She found that this language contains several linguistic devices that have a particularly strong effect on its speakers. The first device is the use of abstractions in the form of abbreviations, such as BAMBI, meaning Ballistic Missile Boost Interception.(1) Cohn suggests that such concepts elicit positive feelings, in order to distance the speakers from the grisly reality they are discussing. Euphemisms are a further device that Cohn introduces. Terms such as “clean bombs” or “damage limitation weapon” evoke the idea that these potentially extremely destructive nuclear weapons are much less harmful than they actually are.(1) Finally, Cohn shows how sexual metaphors are used, such as the expression that a country loses its “virginity” when it uses a nuclear bomb for the first time.(1)

According to Cohn, using these linguistic devices turns discussions about nuclear arms, and especially those about their consequences, into strictly technical conversations, masking the lives of thousands of people that are at stake.(1) She claims that speakers no longer think about the consequences of their actions in the same way they would have done using a non-technostrategic language, and that these consequences are thus trivialised.(1) Further, technostrategic language does not allow for certain ideas or thoughts to be expressed or considered. Her most prominent example is that of peace: the word “peace” itself does not exist in technostrategic language. The closest translation is “strategic stability”; however, this concept always assumes stability within the realm of nuclear arms and does not allow for a notion of peace without these arms.(1) Cohn states that if one were to try to use the word “peace” nonetheless, one would not be heard, let alone accepted by the defense intellectuals.(1) Someone using the word “peace” would be branded as a “softheaded activist”.(2) In this context, Cohn also discovered that she could not use ordinary language (read English) to speak to the defense analysts, as when she tried they would act as if she were ignorant or simple-minded. To communicate and to be respected, she had to use the technostrategic language. Cohn argues that the technostrategic language influences and structures its speakers’ thoughts: “I have come to believe that this language both reflects and shapes the nature of the American nuclear strategic project, that it plays a central role in allowing defense intellectuals to think and act as they do.”(1)

A linguistic approach

Examining Cohn’s argumentation from a linguistic perspective, it becomes apparent that she argues from what linguists call a Whorfian or linguistic relativity point of view. Whorfianism assumes that thought is determined by the language a person speaks.(3) Much research supports the Whorfian claim.(4) Psycholinguist Peter Gordon, for example, examined the use of number words in an isolated Amazonian tribe, the Piraha.(4) The Piraha have only three number words respectively describing “very few”, “slightly more”, and “many”. Gordon’s experiment showed that the Piraha had difficulties with the concept of exact counting, especially with numbers in high ranges.(4) From this result Gordon inferred an argument in favour of Whorfianism: The Piraha could not conceive the concept of exact numbers because they lacked number words in their language. Since they did not have a linguistic system of numbers, they could not understand the concept of numbering in an exact and precise sense. (4)

The Whorfian claim is contested, as some linguists believe that the influence of language on thought is actually only very small.(5) They claim that even if a language does not have a word for a certain concept, this does not mean that its speakers cannot comprehend the idea of that concept. This argument has been supported by research. For example, in Greek there are two different words for what is called “light blue” and “dark blue” in English. When shown one of these shades of blue, Greek speakers named the specific colour word, whereas English speakers simply described it as “blue”. Yet, when shown both shades of blue, even English speakers could differentiate between them. This shows that while language can influence its speakers´ attentiveness to a certain concept, that concept can be understood even if there is no word for it in a particular language.(6)

How does this relate to Cohn´s idea of technostrategic language? It suggests that even if there is no word for peace, defense intellectuals can still understand the concept. It is important to note that according to this line of thought, defense intellectuals could theoretically understand the notion of peace, even in the realm of technostrategic language variety alone. Outside of the English language, even if this is not an issue, as all speakers of technostrategic language are also speakers of English. While they would presumably develop the concept themselves more quickly if they had a term for peace, they can express the concept through circumscriptions. However, could one not also argue from an entirely reversed point of view – that it is not language that influences thought in the first place, but that thought influences a language and its development? Thus one could assume that the Piraha simply do not need a cohesive number system in their everyday lives, and so they do not think about such a system and, therefore, never developed on in their language. This could also be applied to Cohn’s technostrategic language and the word “peace”. According to Cohn’s descriptions, this effect would however work for a different purpose. The word “peace” is not a legitimate part of the vocabulary of a defense intellectual, since people using this word are not taken seriously.(2)

Cohn’s idea of technostrategic language researched

What are the implications of this linguistic theory (i.e. the effect of thought on language and vice versa) for Carol Cohn’s ideas on technostrategic language? To what extent do the thoughts and technostrategic language of defense intellectuals affect each other? Firstly, technostrategic language is doubtlessly a clearer product of its environment than any of the languages typically examined by linguistic research (e.g. Piraha). Was Cohn right in calling technostrategic language a “language”, or would we rather define it as a specialised language variant? It lacks characteristics that are usually considered by linguists to be crucial for a language: it is not the only or native tongue of any of its speakers and did not develop over time for basic communication purposes. Instead it was developed by a small elite of scientists and intellectuals and is fully based on English. These first speakers who created the language variant were strongly involved in the development of nuclear arms and, thus, probably fervent proponents. It can be assumed that their explicit aim was to use terms that would let any problem appear less extreme, both to the public and to themselves. In my opinion, the linguistic devices that Cohn identified were, therefore, introduced somewhat purposefully and as a reaction to the environment – and thereby to thought – even if unconsciously. In addition, some concepts, such as that of peace, were not relevant for their language. Peace, which implies the abolition of nuclear arms and deterrence (i.e., the opposite of what defense intellectuals wanted), is not a useful word in that context. Consequently, it may be argued that the development and structure of technostrategic language were in fact determined by thought. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge a possible reverse influence (thought on language) to contribute to a more balanced view of the linguistic debate on Whorfianism.

Let us now briefly contemplate what these findings could mean for other domains. Since 2015, there has been a large influx of migrants and refugees towards Europe, a matter that is commonly described as a “refugee crisis” or “migration crisis” by the media, government officials and public figures. How can the use of the word “crisis” be interpreted? On the one hand, one should look at a possible influence of language on thought: What are the implications of using “crisis” in this regard? Drawing on the above research one could speculate that the word conveys a degree of seriousness that more neutral words, such as “issue” or “matter”, do not imply. Subsequently, the use of the term “crisis” in this case leads to a more serious perception of the phenomenon, influencing the thoughts of the audience as a result. On the other hand, the reverse influence, that of thought on language, should also be considered: How did thought contribute to the common use of the word “crisis”? From this angle, perhaps the dominant feeling regarding the matter is mainly one of concern and fear, and thus people started to refer to it as a “crisis” rather than using less biased words. In this scenario thought would be influencing language. It seems most probable that both of these aspects have played a role, rather than being mutually exclusive.


Cohn argued that technostrategic language determines its speakers’ thoughts. Cohn does not specify what the influence she talks about entails, and her claim that the technostrategic language variant fully determines thought goes too far, as there is no evidence of a fully deterministic relationship. In short, it would therefore be better to argue that technostrategic language does not determine thought, but that it can affect it. A reverse effect, the influence of speakers’ thoughts on their language use, also suggests that environment played an influencing role in the way the technostrategic language of defense intellectuals developed. These reciprocal influences of language and thought are not restricted to the technostrategic language of defense intellectuals as was shown above, but can be observed in other areas, such as the media. The discourse surrounding the “refugee crisis” in Europe is a current example and it would be of interest to further explore it in future in-depth research.


Technostrategic language describes a specific language based on English. While it sounds like English to outsiders, it is a language especially employed by defense intellectuals (see nuclear arms), which uses certain linguistic devices and has an own vocabulary. This vocabulary entails many terms related to the technology and strategic thinking of nuclear arms. Cohn, who coined the term, wanted it to show how intertwined and interrelated these two, the nuclear strategic thinking and technology of nuclear arms, are.

According to Cohn, defense intellectuals are men that work in government, the military, at universities and multiple other institutions involved in US nuclear arms issues. They look for ways to deal with nuclear weapons and argue that nuclear arms are necessary as they are the only way to deter other nuclear powers from attacking. Defense discourse describes the communication between defense intellectuals.


1 Cohn, Carol. 1987. “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals”. Signs. 12: 687-718.

2 Robbins, Richard H. 2006. Cengage Advantage Books: Cultural Anthropology: A Problem-Based Approach. New York: Wadsworth.

3 Whorf, Benjamin. Lee. 1940. “Science and linguistics”. Technology Review. 42: 227-231, 247-248. Reprinted in Language, thought, and reality: Selected a of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. by J. B. Carroll, 207-219. Cambridge, MA: The Technology Press of MIT/New York: Wiley. 1956.

4 Gordon, Peter. 2004. “Numerical Cognition Without Words: Evidence from Amazonia”. Science. 306: 496-499.

5 Tomasello, Michael. 2000. “The item-based nature of children’s early syntactic development”. Trends in Cognitive Science. 4: 156-163.

6 “Language and Thought – Geoff Pullum vs. Guillaume Thierry.” YouTube, uploaded by University of Groningen, Feb. 27, 2016, com/watch?v=mMNFyhuqyNQ. Accessed Dec. 3, 2016.


Ann-Sophie Freund currently studies International Relations and International Organisation at the University of Groningen.


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