Abstract: Constructing Anxiety and Fear through Language Use: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Abstract: As basic human emotions, fear and anxiety have been anchored in an interdisciplinary (neuroscientific, psychological and biological) scholarly context since the beginning of the research in these fields. However, humanities and cultural studies have shown that manifestations of fear and anxiety in verbal and visual artefacts should be considered not only a basic human emotion but also cultural and social phenomena and thus products of human construction and specific language use. In recent history, the linguistic construction of fear in mass media, social media, literature, film, computer games, etc. is gaining momentum again. Social science research regards this phenomenon as an existential conditio humana or the basic emotional equipment of all risk societies (Beck 1986; 2007; Bauman 1988 [2000]; 2006). With regard to the attributes “troubled times”, “societies of fear”, “culture of discontent” etc. assigned to present times, it is highly relevant to determine which media and which discourse actors express, amplify or manipulate fear and anxiety and what verbal and non-verbal means do they use in order to impose them as an appropriate perspective on social reality.

As a basic human emotion and as a product of medial/linguistic construction, fear cannot be reduced to recent history. According to the latest research findings, it has been as relevant for historical pre-modern times (Bär 2013; 2019, 158; Delumeau 1985; Voltmer 2021). However, a systematic linguistic analysis of the fear vocabulary and – more importantly – of the less explicit ways to talk about or generate fear remains scarce in these paradigms. As paradoxical as it may seem, construction of fear and anxiety seems to be a cultural and historical constant on the one hand that undergoes continuous changes on the other. From a linguistic point of view, fear and anxiety are not fully discussed topics insofar as not even the semantics of the linguistic means of their construction, their variety and the functional depth of the use of words and concepts have been sufficiently studied. Little knowledge is available to date of how fear and anxiety are constructed if the typical “fear vocabulary” is not used. These research questions open up far-reaching theoretical implications as well as methodological challenges and will be addressed on the basis of a diachronic corpus of historical and modern “mass media” texts covering the period from the 17th to the 21th century. Though German texts will be used as a starting point, the ultimate methodological goal of the project is to develop an inventory of lexical, grammatical, syntactic and pragmatic means of the construction of fear and anxiety that could be applicable to different languages.

Project related publications

Filatkina, Natalia (2015): Diskurshistorische Analysen des Begriffs Zukunftsangst anhand des Spiegel-online-Archivs. In: Sprachwissenschaft 40/1, 73-126.

Filatkina, Natalia (2016): Darumb kam eine seer grosse furcht vnd schrecken in das Volck. angest vs. vorhte – Martin Luther als Wendepunkt? In: Bartsch, Nina/Schultz-Balluff, Simone (Hg.): PerspektivWechsel oder: Die Wiederentdeckung der Philologie. Band 2: Grenzgänge und Grenzüberschreitungen. Zusammenspiele von Sprache und Literatur in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. Festschrift für Klaus Peter Wegera. Berlin, 67-89.

Filatkina, Natalia & Franziska Bergmann (Hgg.) (2021): Angstkonstruktionen. Kulturhistorische Annäherungen an eine Zeitdiagnose. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter [open access].

Prof. Dr. Natalia Filatkina

University of Hamburg, Germanic Linguistics / Digital Historical Linguistics

Constructing Anxiety and Fear through Language Use: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Theory & Methodology

In a mutual approach of (Social / Natural) Sciences and Humanities, research on the different aspects of Anxiety Culture has to be carried out in a combination of methodological traditions and innovations, referring to data-sets and empirical findings in each area of investigation.