Lancaster rescues embattled linguist

November 14, 2003

An internationally renowned linguist has quit Austria for the UK amid a row tainted by allegations of political intolerance, anti-Semitism and misrepresentation.

Ruth Wodak accepted a personal chair at Lancaster University after the Austrian Academy of Science declined to fund her work, partly because some felt her analysis of discourses on racism and national identity cast Austria in a bad light.

The Jewish researcher, who is the second most-cited scholar in discourse studies, was both the first woman and the first social scientist to win Austria's Wittgenstein prize, which gave her funding for six years. In that time, her research group produced 40 books and more than 200 articles.

The group had been earmarked for more support from the academy to work on European identities. Professor Wodak had already been encouraged to begin field studies for the new project when members of the academy's philosophical-historical section voted 19 to 18 to reject her as the head of the group. The entire project was then ditched.

Professor Wodak was outraged. She told The THES : "If my research had been approved, I would probably have stayed in Vienna to carry it out. As it is, I'm looking forward to leaving Austria and working in the UK.

"I was not given the chance to defend myself against false accusations. The manner in which the academy handled the matter was unprofessional and contrary to all international standards."

One of Professor Wodak's leading opponents is Wolfgang Brezinka, a member of the academy and a professor of education from Innsbruck, who accused her of pursuing political action under the cover of scholarship.

But Professor Wodak showed that he had misquoted her, in effect distorting the meaning of her words, while making his case.

Herbert Mattis, vice-president of the academy, admitted that some members thought that Professor Wodak had acted as if she were a spokesperson for the academy through work that they believed reflected badly on Austria.

"The whole incident wasn't handled very smoothly," he said.

Paul Chilton, professor of linguistics at the University of East Anglia and a close associate of Professor Wodak, said she had found the atmosphere in Vienna "unbearable".

David Cesarani, professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Southampton, said Professor Wodak's research was impeccable if "uncomfortable reading".

"I can imagine that she has accumulated enemies in the rightwing parties who see her work as a thorn in the side," he said.

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