A Frame-Analytical Perspective on the EU

by Ramona Plitt
Cover: // CC0.

A Frame-Analytical Perspective on the EU

Recently, I went to listen to a panel discussion on the European Union. These days, such events seem shooting up like mushrooms; with the European Parliament election set to take place on 23-26 May, it is said that we are heading towards a fateful and decisive election (see the cover of Cicero).

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It is left up to the reader to determine which major political election was not in, at least, some way “fateful” or “decisive”.  However, what we can probably agree on is that the debates on the upcoming election and the EU are somehow accompanied by uncomfortable feelings. The Brexit, the refugee ‘crisis’, and the dismantling of democracy in Eastern Europe are just three substantial topics in the overall EU discourse providing a sense of fragility. ‘The system doesn’t work’, ‘the EU is stuck’, ‘the EU is crumbling’. These phrases are linguistic pendants to the message which is encapsulated in the above illustration. The EU is ‘endangered’, says this cover; actually, the burning of the right third of the flag might even suggest that for some rescue measures it is already too late.

In light of this urgency, I took delight in listening to the panel discussants that turned out to advocate the EU passionately reasonable. A pro-European spirit spread throughout the room. However, despite this supportive tenor, I stumbled upon a, say, widespread semantic inconsistency. ‘The EU is one of the most successful peace projects’, ‘the EU project requires our commitment’, ‘the free movement of persons is at the heart of the European project’, and so on. The panel discussion was a fine example of how the conceptualization of the EU as a project became entrenched. Virtually unaware of the fact that projects are often limited in time (cf. the FrameNet entry on ‘project’), those self-proclaimed EU lovers reproduced a frame that was literally opposing their own convictions. When engaged into a project, project partners are free to leave, they are free to turn to other, more personal projects and endeavors. In the private sphere, we successfully avoid the conceptual entanglement of affection, limitation, and opt-out options by NOT speaking of ‘love projects’:

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Of course, such reflections invite one to embark on (sometimes platitudinous) semantic wars. Around key events, such as elections, the search for the right words and frames seems to reach its peak. Synchronically, election campaigns and debates can be thus a fruitful research subject to grasp argumentative patterns across all political parties. Diachronically, in turn, elections can be seen as a political caesura allowing to trace conceptual shifts.

Putting Key Events to the Reality Test: The Case of Poland

In the last months, I adopted the latter approach to the EU discourse in Poland. In 2015, the Law and Justice party (PiS) swept to power and introduced a flurry of changes. Its nationalist, socially conservative, and Eurosceptic orientation shaped the discourse and country within a few years. In adopting a cognitive perspective, it was just logical to assume that a concrete political change will lead to linguistic changes and vice versa. Our cognition mediates between numerous peripheral systems; culture and language should then be mutually influential. This assumption called for a test. A corpus consisting of EU relevant articles from the magazines Wprost and Polityka covered the period from 2013-2017, two years before the election and two years afterwards. In analyzing the corpus, I looked at keywords, n-grams, and (verb)collocations. For reasons of space, I will present only a selection of findings.

Crucially, the most productive and insightful results were those gained by looking at the keywords. The following list gives an overview on the keywords that occurred in the EU discourse corpus:

Ranking Keywords






Keywords 2016-2017
1 Polska Polska Polska Polska
2 Ukraina Rosja Europa Europa
3 Europa Europa PiS PiS
4 Rosja Ukraina Unia Unia
5 UE UE Europejski UE
6 Unia Tusk Niemcy Europejski
7 Europejski Europejski Polak Polak
8 Tusk Unia Rosja Tusk
9 Polak Polak UE Kaczyński
10 PiS Putin Kaczyński Niemcy
11 Na PiS Grecja Brytania
12 USA Na Na Francja
13 Niemcy Donald Francja Rosja
14 Kaczyński Bruksela Niemiec Na
15 Putin Niemcy Bruksela Wielki
16 Bruksela Francja Ukraina USA
17 Kijów USA II Donald
18 Janukowycz PO PO Niemiec
19 PO Brytania Brytania Bruksela
20 To Wielki Turcja Jarosław

Keywords 2013-2017

Each keyword can be practically subjected to a deeper analysis. Its occurrence, disappearance and movement can shed light on subtle shifts in discourse. But let me elaborate on three: PO, II, and na.

As we can see, PO – which stands for Platforma Obywatelska, hence the major opposition party in Poland – exhibits a relatively stable movement until 2016. This fading allows to assume that the Polish EU discourse became biased excluding a broader political spectrum. In cognitive terms, respectively in frame semantic paraphrase, this observation can be described as the decline of the concrete filler PO in the Polish EU frame[1]. Admittedly, such a disappearance can also point to the emergence of a new default. This would mean that PO became so entrenched that it became a permanent part of implicit knowledge when speaking about the EU. In any case, both interpretations require to be retested in follow-up investigations.

The same holds true for the number II. Surprisingly, it popped up solely in the 2015-2016 corpus. A contextual exploration revealed that II occurred in reference to Pope John Paul II., World War II., the Second Vatican Council, II Rzeczpospolita (Second Polish Republic), and, interestingly, to Frederick the Great. Looking closer at each of these events and personages, one will notice that they all can be situated within the field of tension of occupation and foreign rule, and the strive for freedom/independence and national pride. Take, for instance, Frederick the Great. In Poland, he is conceptualized as a relatively traumatizing lieu de mémoire. His disparaging opinion about the Polish led to generally unfavorable connotations. Frederick the Great’s occurrence in the EU corpus can be thus, for example, read as the continuation of the foreign rule discourse materializing in the self-stylization as a victim and the accusation of potential enemies. What is usually associated with Frederick the Great becomes hence mapped or projected onto the EU.

The last observation I would like to present is the occurrence of the preposition na. Since grammatical words are assumed to be evenly distributed in language, na’s consistent occurrence in the keyword lists was very surprising. In Polish, na governs the accusative and the locative case. In general, there is a preference for the accusative usage of na. Both, the discourse corpora as well as a reference corpus revealed that there is a 40%:60% ratio regarding the distribution of the locative and accusative na. However, when looking concretely at the construction na + [empty slot] + UE (‘unia europejska’), a quite opposite effect could be observed:

Locative and Accusative in na + [] + EU constructions.

This finding was also striking since it demonstrated that the locative na experienced a usage boom in the transition phase between 2014-2016. A multidisciplinary approach could investigate whether the locative boom can be linked to any concrete event. Yet, when adhering to a cognitive approach, the reasons for certain entanglements can be cautiously (!) classified as secondary. Of prime importance are the marks, the cognitive routines, that are left in our understanding of the world through usage. Whether the EU is associated with the accusative or the locative affects our perception. Is it an abstract community (accusative) or is it a geographically defined entity? Quantitative-qualitative cognitive linguistic research can uncover such subtle semantic fixations.

A Question of Perspective

Choosing a certain wording means choosing a certain perspective. Of course, a discourse is filled with a vast array of perspectives; but looking at the data one can hardly escape the impression that some types of conceptualization are more prominent than others. For instance, whilst the results obtained for na suggested a spatial conceptualization of the EU, the verb collocations found for ‘EU’ (as ‘to impose’) pointed to a hierarchical understanding of the European Union. Broadly speaking, this implies a conceptualization along vertical (or hierarchical) and horizontal (or spatial) coordinate-axes. As such understandings become entrenched, we tend to lose the imagination of how the EU could be conceptualized differently. How would, for instance, a circular conceptualization affect our perception? How would the mapping of a family frame onto the EU influence our sense of togetherness?

Of course, the EU is not a PR-machinery and this article does not set out to provide frame alternatives. Instead, what was demonstrated was that certain perspectives may gain impetus from political upheavals or (key events). A society’s mentality – thus, its feeling, thinking, and wanting at a given time – can be indeed approached by looking at linguistic patterns. It is very likely that the upcoming EU election will be discussed similarly in a few years. Then, we will look back and look at patterns and perspectives which help us to explain consequences we are not yet aware of.

[1] Frames are understood as conceptual structures consisting of slots, fillers and default values. For further discussion see Busse’s Frame Semantik (2012) or Semantik (2009: 82-84).

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