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Nr. 93, 27.01.2018  voriger  Übersicht  weiter

The many faces of a lie

Lies can mean all sorts of things. What they always are, in every case, is a linguistic construction. However, this subject is tackled comparatively rarely in linguistics.


Lies don’t just have many faces and travel fast - they also have a scientific significance. Image: fotolia

This was precisely the reason why specialist in German studies, Professor Markus Hundt, decided to look more closely at the linguistic aspects of the lie. A seminar on the subject was very well received and a presentation at the latest "Night of the Profs" in November sparked interest all round, too.

Not surprising, really. If you believe various psychological studies, lies are told in Germany all the time. According to the most often cited figure, each and every one of us bends the truth around 200 times each day. This is where linguistics comes into play, too, as such strikingly high numbers can only be ranked as lies if we take into account what is actually defined as a lie.

"There are many different ways to tell a lie," stressed Markus Hundt, naming a broad spectrum of lies that are to be regarded as highly diverse in moral terms, too, ranging from the most brazen lie via the polite lie to the "white lie". The obvious case of lying is when someone knowingly says something untrue, something he/she does not believe and that offers him/her advantages or prevents disadvantages.

Professor Markus Hundt has embraced the intricate linguistic paths of lies. Foto: Martin Geist

"If we only counted this type of downright lie, the result would certainly be much lower than 200," said the Kiel-based specialist in German studies, referring to the wide range of other types of untruth. At the honest end of the moral scale would be the "white lie", for example, when a doctor refrains from telling his/her patient the true state of his/her health. "It's true that the doctor then knowingly says something false, something she does not believe herself, but this might be done with the intention of helping the patient, because the truth could throw the patient off track, so much so the patient might no longer take opportunities to get better," explained Hundt.

Each definition also has its weak points. "Just as with birds, there are more typical and less typical representatives of the category – such as a robin compared with a penguin or an ostrich – we find that there are forms of lies that are less prototypical, too," said Hundt. If someone who has had quite a lot to drink (like three or four beers) asserts truthfully "I have drunk two beers", then this is an implicature-based lie, as the listener concludes from the statement that only two beers (and no more) have been drunk.

Half-truths are also quite popular. "I got a B in German" is a half-truth if, at the same time, the speaker refrains from saying that he/she also got a D in Maths. And then there is also the presuppositional lie, which can be expressed in the sentence "Karl is smoking again". “What is conveyed here is that Karl used to smoke, although he is smoking for the first time," explained Professor Hundt.

People also lie, time and again, out of politeness. "You haven't changed a bit" says someone to a school friend he/she sees again after 20 years – and both know that it is nothing but a flattering fib.

The mistake is, by contrast, a form of lie in which the speaker him/herself believes in the false statements. Nonetheless, according to Hundt, this atypical form of lie can be dangerous and can form the breeding ground for problematic conspiracy theories. Problematic if, for example, members of the anti-government "Reichsbürger" (citizens of the Reich) movement create their own reality. If this sort of nonsense comes from the mouths of influential people, it becomes really worrying because the truth of statements is often also judged by the authority of those that make them. With regard to this, Hundt said: "If, after a terrorist attack, Trump asserts that American justice is a joke, this is dangerous because many people will believe it, based on the high profile of the person."

The Kiel-based specialist in German studies, who otherwise works on dialect identification or language history primarily of the 17th century, has also, however, prepared tips on successful lying. The most important rule is "when you lie, keep your lies as simple as possible." The reason for this is also clear, as the more details you feed into an invented story, the greater the risk of getting caught out.

German Democratic Republic head of state and party chief Walter Ulbricht took great heed of the rule of simplicity on 15 June 1961 when he announced: "no one intends to build a wall." By doing so, he produced what is probably the most famous lie, at least of recent history, but not proof of the untruthfulness of politics per se, said Hundt. Time and again, in politics and in the media, it is not always the whole truth that is expressed, but these sectors are no better or worse than the rest of society, stressed Markus Hundt: "blatant lies are usually the exception."

In addition, the professor of lies may by no means wish to deny that lies have a certain right to exist. "If everyone always told the truth, it would be a disaster," warned Hundt. He considers the many lies and half-truths that are told out of consideration or politeness as a "basis of social interaction" that is not to be underappreciated.

Martin Geist
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