Research article
Issue: № 10 (52), 2016

Миньяр-Белоручева А.П.

ORCID: 0000-0002-9760-3857, Доктор филологических наук, Профессор, Московский государственный университет имени М.В. Ломоносова,



Цель статьи заключается в рассмотрении вопросов, касающихся критического анализа исторического дискурса. Под историческим дискурсом подразумевается исторический текст или совокупность концептуально связанных исторических текстов, интегрированных в определенный исторический контекст. Исторический дискурс поливекторный по своей природе, так как включает разножанровые тексты, отражающие разнообразные аспекты человеческой жизни в прошлом. На основе многочисленных поливекторных первоисточников историки стремятся интерпретировать отобранные для анализа события прошлого, которые, по сути, являются отдельными фрагментами жизни в прошлом.

Ключевые слова: исторический дискурс; первоисточники; историк; полидискурсивность; убеждающие стратегии; события прошлого.

Minyar-Beloroucheva A.P.

ORCID: 0000-0002-9760-3857, PhD in Linguistics, Dr. Habil, Professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University in Moscow



The purpose of this paper is to outline the issues concerning critical analysis of historical discourse. Today the study of a text has extended to the analysis of discourse. Discourse is defined in different ways. The most appropriate definition is the one connected with the text as the focus of a situational context. Thus, by historical discourse is implied a historical text or an array of historical texts integrated in a certain historical context. Historical discourse is poly-discursive in its nature as it embraces different texts reflecting diverse aspects of human life in the past. On the bases of numerous and multidiscursive primary sources historians endeavor to interpret events of the past selected for analysis. The primary sources display only fragments of the life in the past. Despite the desire of historians to be objective they are not free from the ideology determined by their class or party and try to impose on the readers their own understanding of events of the past by using different persuasive strategies.

Keywords: historical discourse; historian; poly-discursiveness; persuasive strategies; primary sources; events of the past.


Historical discourse despite its complicated nature has never been in the focus of the linguistic study. Present interest in history can be explained by the desire of every nation to establish its place in history, to reveal its national and cultural identity, to define its role in the development of society in the past. History as an academic discipline is important for politics as well, as it can help political scientists, searching for the analogues in the earlier periods, to understand the present day situation in a better way. History gives us a panoramic life of the past in all its width and variety as single process due to language which is one of the most important tools of historians. Historians emphasize that it is language that revives the events of the past [7, 236] on the pages of their works to give them their second life. To write their own works on history, historians have to analyze a great number of primary sources in order to understand how political, economic and social ideas shaped the life of the people in the past thus predetermining the future. Historians interpret the primary sources from the vantage point of their class, society and ideology. And although the actual historical events may be set forth properly different historians interpret them in different ways. To convince the readers that their interpretation of the events of the past is true, modern historians use various persuasive techniques. For the readers it is important to know the ideology of the historians who analyze and narrate the life in the historical past and reconstruct the atmosphere of the gone away epochs.

The aim of the study is to critically analyze historical discourse to expose the persuasive strategies historians use to draw in their readers to adopt their viewpoint and believe in their objectivity.

Material and method 

Today the analysis of a text has extended to the analysis of discourse. Discourse, per se, is defined in different ways. As an ambiguous term, it integrates lots of meanings varying from philosophy to linguistics and other branches of study. H.G. Widdowson identifies discourse as text plus situational context in opposition to text understood as discourse minus situational context [6]. In this paper the definition of discourse given by van Dijk is adhered to. According to T. van Dijk, discourse is text in context [6]. Thus, it is evident  that discourse is wider than text as besides text it includes multiple extra-language components. Moreover, text (written or recorded) is immutable and permanent within ever changing discourse. Unlike text which is rigid and unchanging (as it is put down on papyrus,  parchment, paper, canned or saved  to a diskette), discourse is an open entity. Discourse is fluctuating, it is constantly modifying under different circumstances. The property of discourse is changing in the process of creating or reading a text. Thus text and discourse are correlate as a variant (discourse) and invariant (text).

The correlation of text and discourse can be expressed in terms of the Boolean algebra as a ∨ (ab) = a. In this formula a stands for discourse, b stands for text and text and discourse comprise discourse. Every text exists within the frame of discourse and despite its stability it can be perceived differently due to the ever changing discourse.

An emphasis should be set on the correlation of text and discourse suggested by Norman Fairclough. The scholar clarified the correlation of discourse and text most explicitly by referring to discourse as ‘to the whole process of social interaction of which a text is just a part’ [2, 20]. The scholar understands discourse as a three-part phenomenon that includes a text, the process of production and the process of interpretation [2, 20]. According to N. Fairclough text analysis is only an element of discourse analysis which comprises such indispensible processes as production and interpretation. Thus the text’s properties are determined by its discourse, i.e. the productive process that precedes its creation and the process of interpretation that comes after it. The text’s properties besides two mentioned processes interact with ‘member resources’ which relate to people’s cognition that include the knowledge of language, representations of the natural and social worlds they inhabit, values, beliefs, assumptions [2, 20] and are socially conditioned. Discourse in its nature engages social conditions, which are not homogeneous and can be categorized into social conditions of production and social conditions of interpretation [2, 20]. Thus discourse as an intricate substance needs a complex, multilevel analysis that can not be limited only to the analysis of a text or its processes but can be expand to the analysis of the “relationship between text, processes, and their social conditions” [2, 21]

N. Fairclough, who is aware that text and discourse are closely intertwined in their nature and can not be analyzed separately, developed three stages of critical discourse analysis that include: description, interpretation and explanation.

– Description is the stage which is concerned with the formal properties of the text.

– Interpretation is concerned with the relationship between text and interaction – with seeing the text as a product of a process of production, and as a resource in the process of interpretation <…>.

– Explanation is concerned with the relationship between interaction and social context – with the social determination of the processes of production and interpretation, and their social effects [2, 21-22].

By this N. Fairclough emphases that the nature of critical discourse analysis differs at different stages. The first stage could have been the simplest one as it concerns the elicitation of the prescribed text’s properties, but for the neglected level of turning ideas into a text. As for other stages of interpretation and explanation, the scholar stresses, they are less definite as their multifaceted and opaque relationships deal with cognitive processes that are hidden from the surface analysis.

Critical discourse analysis is aimed at diminishing the obscurity hidden beyond the surface of the text as it studies inexplicable links of causality of discursive practice, events and texts on the one hand and socio-cultural components, relations and processes on the other. Critical discourse analysis that takes language not only as a set of signs, but as ‘social practice’  implies that every language functions in a society with its cultural, social and psychological particularities in a certain period of time. For critical discourse analysis it is essential to consider that language determined by social and historical conditions in its turn determines the consciousness of people. In history critical discourse analysis is aimed at discovering the events and ideologies that fostered present day societies to acquire power and supremacy.


Critical discourse analysis is indispensible for studying discourse of history as history comes to us not only through semi ruined cultural historical heritage but through texts first of all. Through texts history informs, advocates, persuades, programs Weltanschauung by creating discourse, under which is implied text, immersed in temporal-spatial-cultural context with the aim of providing a certain impact on the mind of the recipient, urging him to act. All these contribute to the hybridity of historical discourse. Thus by discourse of history we imply an array of conceptually connected texts within certain contexts devoted to the study of the events and personalities of the past, as history as academic discipline assists in understanding strong coherence that unites past, present and future. For creation an academic text on history the processes of production and interpretation are very important because they precede it. Before shaping the events of the past in their own texts historians deal with a great number of primary sources that are socially conditioned by the epoch of their creation. Despite the existing notion that primary sources are discourse free, it is difficult to agree with the statement as every document taken as a primary source today was once created in a particular epoch under certain circumstances affecting them. No annalist could be unbiased in his description of the events he had witnessed himself or heard of. At the same no contemporary historian can reconstruct discourse of primary sources, he can only assume it by perceiving der Zeit Geist. Only commercial promissory notes, contracts, receipts and vouchers can be impartial.  Primary sources discourse should always be taken into consideration by contemporary historians who see and assess them from the vantage point of their time and ideology. Ideology as is known is implemented though discourse which is noted for its dialogue [2]. History is the most ideological academic discipline and this makes its discourse ideological as well permitting historians to interpret one and the same historical event or personality in different ways. Dialogue in historical discourse is created by the numerous intertextual inclusions that bring about the interaction between past and present. However, a historian, by asking questions to the past and seeking answers from it, does not get them from the past but responds to them by himself taking these answers for the answers from the past [8].  All the answers are based on the comparison of different chronologically or chaotically presented facts, but the logic of their presentation is modern and incompatible with the logic of the past. But historians manage to get the necessary answer to show that the past determines the present and future. Due to historical discourse  every historian can create his own history by presenting and assessing historical facts, events and personalities in the way he needs to justify the actions of the contemporary politicians and thus to shape the required present and future.

Contemporary historians turn to the past of human society to perceive the truth of the present and future. Historical discourse facing simultaneously past, present and  future works out the pattern of the present by shaping the events of the past on the assumption of the current pragmatic tasks. That is why today we frequently witness the endeavor to rewrite history that has become a great tool to change the present and especially the future. And it is not a maxim is a principle which is strictly adhered to nowadays. History is everywhere present in contemporary life. Politicians turn to history to justify their actions, to find the pivot that could help them place the particular action in the historical space to understand whether the occurred activity was wrong or inevitable and thus categorized as right. To understand the implications of the recently held the Brexit vote in Great Britain, even journalists turn to history. Some of them parallel it with the battle of Trafalgar when on October 21, 1805 Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson with his last breath ‘gained for England another hundred years of history’ [3]. The Brexit vote is expected to have the same effect, but with the unpredictable future any conclusion is cautiously drawn as it can go either way. The same attitude is typical for the assessment of the events of the far past.


In their academic texts historians seldom express their ideas and seldom give an overt assessment of the events of the past as the ideas and assessment are determined by contemporary politics. The interconnectedness of practices is a reciprocal process. Social structures of present are constitutive of historical discursive practices, and historical social structures determine discursive practices of present. For this purpose historians try to narrate the events of the past not to distort them (although we frequently witness the distortion of historical facts) but to modify the perception of them. To be convincing historians use different persuasive strategies and techniques. Critical analysis of historical discourse is aimed at the study of historians’ elusive ideology sheltered beyond the surface level of the text.

Primarily the implicit attitude of historians to different events of the past can be revealed by means of metaphors as their ‘expressive value has always been a central concern of those interested in persuasive language’ [2, 99]. At present the realm of metaphors is not limited to poetry or literary discourse as any facet of the historical past can be embodied in metaphors that are of particular interest as “different metaphors have different ideological attachment” [2, 100]. British historian S.T. Bindoff in his book “Tudor England” characterizes Cardinal Wolsey as the man who had “paid the penalty” because he “served himself better than his King”, but immediately refutes it by writing that “he had served Henry VIII better than he could have known or claimed” explaining that “he, by the herculean labours of close on twenty years, preserved inviolate the principle of one-man rule, he had also paved the way for that great extension of monarchical power which before his death Henry had begun to realize” [1, 87]. The historian continues to metaphorically enumerate the great deeds  of the Cardinal saying that, “Instead of hiding in the earth of a pedestrian prudence the talent of secular authority entrusted to his keeping, this royal servant had traded his talents abroad and with them earned the huge dividend of the legatine authority” [1, 87]. Here due to the implicit metaphorical representation of Cardinal Wolsey who even today is considered to be as an ambiguous historical personality S.T. Bindoff makes an image of a great hero of the man whose personality is not properly assessed even today. Striving to be objective and at the same endeavoring to persuade his readers in the greatness of the historical personality S.T. Bindoff uses a metaphor ‘herculean labours of close on twenty years’ which implies that by his death Cardinal Wolsey had carried out the penance for all his misdeeds by opaquely helping Henry VIII extend his monarchical power by implementing the Act of Supremacy into life. Here we see the reverberating power of the metaphor that turns Cardinal Wolsey into a powerful, larger then life antique hero throwing Wolseian shadow on Hercules and due to the merge of the source and target spheres turning them into one personality that lacks negative qualities because of the paid penalty. The ideological meaning of mythological metaphors is great as they send the readers back to the Golden Age of the great heroes whose deeds glorified them for centuries to come. Thus metaphor has made us look at Cardinal Wolsey in a new way to understand his greatness, although nothing essential has been written so far about his deeds. Here the metaphors that create a unique cognitive space are aimed at the glorification of Cardinal Wolsey. A cluster of metaphors used to characterize any historical personality creates an atmosphere of trustworthiness concerning him. Due to the metaphorical field made by the cluster of metaphors we feel that our knowledge is suffice to historically judge this or that personality. The might of Cardinal Wolsey’s political power who prepared the way for ‘the breach with Rome’ [4, 209] is not only expressed metaphorically. Thus, the historian does not only write that, ‘He concentrated power in the hands of one man – himself – to an extent unheard of before’ [4, 207-208], he devotes the rest of the page to the enumeration of all  the cardinal’s positions in which the reader is lost. However, from the viewpoint of knowledge the second approach is more informative, but from the point of view of image making metaphors can not be substituted by anything else but other metaphors. As they persuade without arguments, infinitely expand the historical thinking limited by the borderlines  of the present and give nonverbal characteristics of a historical personalities and events. Metaphor is a set of linguistic, cross mental and cognitive characteristics, it possesses the dual power of the language. Thus, the functions of metaphorical and non- metaphorical characteristics are quite different.


Fairclough was right saying that “Different metaphors imply different ways of dealing with things” [2, 100]. Metaphors are the best tools of implicit persuasiveness especially in historical discourse where the attitude to historical events and historical personalities can change under the impact of the current political events. The structure of critical discourse analysis worked out by N. Fairclough is universal and can be applied to any discourse.

To sum up it should be said that despite the efforts of the historians to present the historical past in the favorable for them way, nothing can change the historical facts and events. Historians can only change the readers’ perception of the past, which eventually may completely displace and distort the real events and facts.


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