Meet Linguist Ruth Wodak, author of Politics of Fear

“It’s very important to live in the space you are writing about and not just sit in the ivory tower of academia.” 

Ruth Wodak lives in Vienna’s 10th district, not far from where her grandfather, a rabbi, lived at the turn of the 19th century. From here, a short tram ride to the heart of the city takes her from what she describes as “the most multicultural areas of town up to ones that are primarily white.” 

Fluent in German, English, French and Serbo-Croatian (with a competency in several other languages), as the Emeritus professor of linguistics is privy to many of the conversations she overhears on these rides. Her multilingualism reflects the many passages her parents went through in the turbulent inter- and post-war years: Fleeing to England to escape the Nazis, returning to Austria following WWII, followed by diplomatic service in Belgrade and Moscow.

“My parents dedicated their lives to fighting against fascism and discrimination and for justice and democracy,” said Wodak, 70.  Adapting to a constant flux of cultures and languages growing up, she developed a keen sense of the power of language.

“Communication was so enormously important to be able to find entry points into all these different surroundings and circumstances,” she recalled.

Even as a preeminent scholar – honors include the Wittgenstein Award and the Grand Silver Medal of Honor for Services to the Austrian Republic – and prolific author, Wodak’s engagement with society remains a priority. 

She accepts many invitations to speak to the public, not only in universities, but also in smaller towns throughout Austria and beyond, institutions of further education, and even trade unions. 

Her most recent book, The Politics of Fear, was published in two editions, in 2015 and 2020, during an explosive period in the field of political discourse. As prescient as the first edition was – identifying key issues like the manipulation of media by right-wing populists (remember this was before the Brexit referendum or the election of Donald Trump) – even Wodak was stunned by barrage of events that took place.

Although we are in a (for now) post-Trump and post-Ibizagate era, Wodak considers her work far from done, with living in the 10th district a constant reminder of how far Austria still has to go.

“Despite this extraordinary diversity,” she worried, “a third of the Viennese population still isn’t able to vote – that’s very undemocratic.”

Janima Nam
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.

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