Language and Conflict Resolution: The Limits of English

Tuesday 6 June 2023

Cohen, Raymond. International Studies Review, 3 no 1 (2001): 25-51.

This article by Raymond Cohen aims to shed light on the influence of language and culture on conflict resolution. Cohen carries this out by exploring and comparing the vocabulary of conflict resolution in English, Arabic and Hebrew. The premise of his article is to challenge the belief that English can express an unbiased, universal notion of conflict resolution due to its status as a global language. Cohen discusses how focusing on language and culture is useful to understanding how these languages conceptualise conflict resolution. First, he argues that language conveys the reality of different cultures: the language of conflict resolution in that culture’s native language informs how that culture views conflict resolution. Second, he sets out his plan for semantic analysis. This involves identifying gaps in the meaning of words and comparing key words across languages, as well as identifying themes in how these languages understand conflict. Cohen identifies four categories under which the vocabulary of conflict resolution in English can fall: industrial relations, engineering, Christian theology and sports and games. In Arabic, he distinguishes two influences, honour and Islamic ethics. For Hebrew, he identifies military, Jewish and legal influences. Drawing on a variety of words in these languages, Cohen traces the contextual origin of these words and explains their cultural connotations. Discussing the Syrian-Israeli peace process, Cohen provides a concrete example of how the gap between different languages and cultures manifests. To conclude, he suggests that the actors involved in peace processes should be aware of gaps in linguistic and cultural habits of understanding what peace involves. Cohen’s article encourages reflection on how the native language of a group informs that group’s understanding of what making or building peace involves. In comparing different languages’ conceptualisations of peace, this article stretches our understanding of peace beyond how we discuss it in the English language. The article also reminds us of the power of language in influencing our thoughts and conceptualisations of the world, which stresses the importance of considering language as a factor contributing to how we visualise peace.


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