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Forging a linguistic identity in the age of the Internet.


Today, computer-mediated communication (CMC) has made written communication a prevalent form of daily interaction through e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and the like. As a consequence, languages (written and spoken) seem to be shaped more and more by the modalities of digital media and of an 'instant communication response' culture. Linguistic identity, or the use of language to portray oneself as part of a community, is being shaped as well by the same modalities. Traditionally, the way individuals and communities used specific forms of language in face-to-face (F2F) situations shaped perceptions of identity (personal and communal). Now, the question can be asked: Are these changing in the age of the Internet, when CMC has extended the concept of community in a global way? This article will look at this question as it concerns linguistic identity in Italy, assessing its implications in the light of the traditional sociolinguistic study of language as a conveyor of identity.


compression, computer-mediated-communication, identity, linguistic change, linguistic identity, online culture, sociolinguistic method


Throughout life, one's sense of identity - defined as the awareness of one's distinctiveness both personally and as part of a group or of groups - changes according to age and situation, but remains largely embedded in the linguistic reality of one's upbringing. Some theorists see identity as a genetic endowment, a fixed quality of Selfhood and character that is modified only superficially by environmental factors. On the other hand, social-constructivist theorists argue that it is largely constructed (modified, adapted) by individuals throughout life in response to the experiences they have. James Baldwin (1985: 23) encapsulates this perspective perfectly as follows: 'An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his/her experience.' Although the debate has never been resolved one way or the other, the research in sociolinguistics has left little doubt that the language or languages acquired in childhood are a major factor in shaping one's sense of identity. Needless to say, there is more to identity than language. Identity is influenced as well by cultural, ethnic, national, religious, gender and other dimensions of human life. For this reason, the term linguistic identity (LI) is preferred when alluding to the impact of language on identity. This is defined loosely as the patterns of linguistic behavior that are felt as meaningful to the speaker both because they resemble those of the group or groups with which he or she wishes to be associated and because he or she believes that they have universal qualities. As many sociolinguists now concur, this is largely a constructed dimension of human personality (Bucholtz and Hall, 2005). In this sense, LI is a sign system, composed of the linguistic-semiotic forms that we absorb in childhood and adapt to our own particular life experiences.

In an in-depth study of LI, John Edwards (2009) argues that the language we are born into and that we use routinely imparts an intuitive sense of who we are. In short, LI is forged both individually through our upbringing and as members of groups who use the same language or its varieties for daily interaction. LI affects other dimensions of identity, since it allows us to build a model of ourselves in reference to culture, ethncitiy, gender and the like, even though the relation may be a distant one, as Ochs (1993: 288) explains:
   Linguistic constructions at all levels of grammar and discourse are
   crucial indicators of social identity for members as they regularly
   interact with one another; complementarily, social identity is a
   crucial dimension of the social meaning of particular linguistic
   constructions. But no matter how crucial language is for
   understanding social identity and social identity for understanding
   the social meaning of language, social identity is rarely
   grammaticized or otherwise explicitly encoded across the world's
   languages. In other words, the relation between language and social
   identity is predominantly a sociolinguistically distant one.

The concept of sociolinguistic distance is an appropriate one, or more correctly was in the pre-Internet age, when speakers absorbed the linguistic categories of their native languages and came to the realization that these had meaning in specific social ways. To put it in more concrete terms, an individual who speaks Italian as a native language tends to experience an ethnic allegiance to Italian culture and society. But the allegiance can be easily detached from the use of the language in situations of migration or change of social status. But in cyberspace the sociolinguistic rules of the game seem to be changing, as Lis are being constructed not only vis-a-vis the traditional 'real' structures of the world (including rearing and upbringing), but through the 'hyperreal' events of cyberspace (Baudrillard, 1983). While we continue to forge and negotiate our social identity in the ways we relate to others, even in cyberspace, we now have a more flexible grasp of both our social and linguistic identities as we manage them on a daily basis through social networking online. In the past, social relations, enduring cultural traditions, and stable patterns of work, life and leisure assured people that fixed patterns of linguistic meaning united them in real space. The Internet has shattered this assurance, forcing individuals to develop new strategies to manage the linguistic realities of everyday life.

In an era of computer-mediated-communication (CMC) the question now becomes: is the traditional notion of LI changing in an age when device-to-device communication is as dominant as face-to-face (F2F) communication, and in some ways even more so? In other words, does the sociolinguistic notion of distance still apply? In this article, I will look at this question as it concerns Italian LI. In a way, the current situation parallels the advent of Italian as a lingua volgare, an event that heralded new forms of identity for the inhabitants of the peninsula--individual, regional, dialectal and national (see Clivio, Danesi and Maida-Nicol, 2011; Cortelazzo, Marcato, De Blasi and Clivio, 2002; Lepschy, 2002). As Italian is evolving (perhaps mutating) in online environments, it is becoming a new lingua volgare that is written as much as it is spoken.

The premise here is that the historical-linguistic tables have been overturned. The sociolinguistic literature has always argued that it is the desire for new forms of identity that gives rise to linguistic change (Ochs's distance hypothesis). In a CMC world language changes are proximate (literally on the screen) and seem themselves to be engendering a new, more abstract, sense of LI. This can be called the proximate hypothesis, which implies that immediate contact with people in cyberspace, without the physical boundaries and socially contextualizing conditions of the real world, is the conduit through which emerging Lis are determined.

Theories of identity

As mentioned, LI is one dimension of overall identity, albeit a crucial one. One of the ways in which it is constructed is, of course, through daily linguistic interaction with others who share the same social and cultural space. The Self-Other dynamic inherent in everyday communication is the frame through which we develop our LI, as Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin (1981, 1986, 1990, 1993) argued. Our 'sense of Self emerges primarily from this dialogicial dynamic as a voice of consciousness. That voice is ensconced in the native or dominant language of upbringing.

If one sifts through the massive literature on identity in the social sciences, it becomes obvious that it evolves primarily (or becomes part of one's personality imprint) during two periods in the human life cycle: before puberty and at adolescence. In childhood, identity is a 'given' system, that is, it is imparted (given) to the child by and through the environment in which he or she is reared. The name, situation, language and specific codes (art, music and so on) that the child is given (and that he or she acquires) in context make-up the 'native-identity' resources through which the child comes to develop a sense of Selfhood. This kind of process can be designated 'indexical,' in the semiotic sense of a sign system that puts the receiver of the conceptual and linguistic resources in relation to their domains of reference and social use. The post-pubescence form of identity, on the other hand, can be called 'symbolic,' again in the semiotic sense of a sign system where symbols are appropriated interpretively to construct a veritable 'identity awareness' of one-self that is expressed through resources such as clothing, new forms of language and discourse, and lifestyle choices. In both cases, it is through interaction with others that the construction process unfolds. Thus identity formation is largely unconscious in childhood, since it is imparted through situational factors; whereas it is conscious, or at least intentional, in the coming-of-age period. The shifts in identity that come about through choices of profession, job, education level, marriage and other aspects of adulthood need not concern us here. For one thing, the research shows that these are minimal; for another, the shifts remain symbolic rather than indexical.

The first attempt to understand how indexical identity evolves into a symbolic form through maturation processes was made by Sigmund Freud (1905, 1913, 1923). Although many now discard Freud's basic theory of development, it nevertheless continues to have many implications and applications, despite the criticism. Essentially, Freud saw the passage from indexicality to symbolism as a period of difficult emotional adjustment because the passage may or may not be successful and, when it is not, it tends to lead to traumatic results in one's sense of Self. Known as repression theory, the claim is that such results are anchored in repressive experiences suffered in childhood. So, identity formation during adolescence becomes a highly emotional-symbolic event. At puberty, the repressed individual must come to grips with his or her sexual persona and body image at a symbolic level, given the hormonal and physical changes that surface during this critical time. As a result, adolescents feel that they are inhabiting a strange new sexual body, which might make them feel awkward, anxious, guilty or afraid of the desires and feelings that it generates. To repress these further, the adolescent seeks out peers and peer groups, which serve as kinds of sheltering social enclaves, whereby the adolescent can immerse himself or herself to gain emotional comfort. It is in these enclaves that the adolescent seeks to forge a new symbolic identity--an identity negotiated in large part through group membership. The manifestations of this identity can be seen in clothing preferences, hairstyle and various bodily decorations, and above all else in a new sense of LI. Speaking a language at the symbolic stage of development implies that its meanings are socially focused and highly expressive. Ironic uses of language emerge at this stage of development for this very reason, since irony is a linguistic defense mechanism.

The psychologist who explored the emergence of symbolic identity as a crucial stage was the American Erik Erikson (1950, 1968). Though schooled in Freudian theory, Erikson developed the non-Freudian concept of identity construction. He defined it as the model of oneself that the adolescent starts to develop as a whole person and which he or she uses to fashion his or her Selfhood, personality and character accordingly. Erikson stressed the continual development of human beings throughout their life cycle. At adolescence, the individual experiences an 'identity crisis' because of inner conflicts related to body image and social pressures, which eventually leads to a sense of self-understanding or, as Erikson called it, 'ego identity.' The Russian psychologist Vygotsky (1962, 1978) similarly saw the advent of adolescence as a period of identity formation, with language playing a major role in fixing one's ego identity. In short, we end up being what we speak.

The question of what language was spoken in childhood (as a given) becomes a dominant one in adolescence. Language is no longer a tool for understanding one's world, but a means (and even a weapon) for acting upon that world. In terms of the distance hypothesis, the social dimension and the linguistic dimension now merge unconsciously. They can be separated, of course, and kept distant if the case arose to necessitate this (such as in social upheavals), but by and large the distance between the two becomes minimal, but is still there. In the era of CMC that distance seems to be eroding even more, as contact through screens and other digital media is bringing about a more proximate response to the conditions of social interaction and as adolescents migrate to cyberspace to negotiate their Lis on a daily basis.

Linguistic identity

Needless to say, in the history of Italian society, as a unified concept, LI has always constituted a major area of sociolinguistic study, because LI tended to be based on dialect speech and regional linguistic variation from a literary norm that became standardized, ironically, only in the era of electronic media (radio and television). There is no need to go into the historical details of this observation here. They are well known. Dialect variation was the basis for identity variation, so to speak. Here the distance hypothesis can be seen to have validity, since the variation was based on the social variable of location (or geography). From the advent of i volgari, speakers of dialects have always forged their Lis on the basis of the dialects. From Dante's De vulgari eloquentia to Ascoli's (1882) classificatory matrix of the dialects on a historico-geographical basis, sociolinguistic studies in Italy have focused on how dialectally based LI contrasted with a standardized sense of Italian as a national language. In short, Lis were forged and negotiated in dialectal contexts and then mitigated or adapted in contact with the structures for imparting a standardized LI. The 'given' or indexical identity was dialectal; the symbolic one became the standardized form in situations of contact (at school, in society, for example). The factors for generating such a dichotomy are well known and include: (1) geographical isolation, (2) patterns of cultural independence and (3) continuous contact with standard Italian in various situations.

The dialectal Lis were ensconced in differences in the phonological, lexical and morphological systems in contact. In a nutshell, being Sicilian meant speaking Sicilian. Being a Sicilian-Italian meant speaking both Sicilian and Italian (usually with an accent). In a world where digital technologies have made written communication rapid and a constant of communicative routine, dialects, regional lifestyles and the like are in danger of becoming extinct, rather than being leveled off further by the traditional forces of standardization and education. Logically, Lis are being refashioned accordingly. This situation has become part of a national debate in Italy, bringing about a new kind of questione della lingua, as Alfonzetti (2002), among many others, has commented. Are the tendencies that characterize the written forms found in chatrooms, text messages, social media sites, and other digital spaces radically changing both the meta-structure of language itself--Saussure's (1916) /angue--and its uses (parole). How are such sociolinguistic patterns as register and speech community changing (Crystal, 2006)? In this new space distance factors are dissipating, as proximity with language communication becomes more and more digitized. Standardization now comes from the screen rather than from other spaces and venues.

Spelling has always been associated with literacy. But the rising use of abbreviations, acronyms and numbers as phonetic substitutes, all of which are designed to make the delivery of written conversational texts rapid and highly economical, is having an impact beyond simple shorthand efficiency tactics. It is leading to a paradigm shift in language use (parole), which in turn is affecting langue. But is this shift the first time it has occurred in the history of Italian? In fact, this happened in virtually the same way when Italian (and other neo-Latin languages) took shape. The archeological-philological evidence for this consists, as is well known, in early medieval graffiti and reported in the so-called Appendix Probi. In an appendix to a grammar of Latin he had written, a grammarian who is thought to have lived in the first century CE, named Valerius Probus, decried the use of vulgar spoken forms, comparing them propaedeutically to the correct classical forms, thus providing, unwittingly and indirectly, a treasury of information on how Vulgar Latin was actually spoken. Probus decried especially words that were abbreviated, such as oclu (occhio) in place of oculus. In effect, we can see here the same pattern of economizing forces at work in transforming Latin into Italian that are at work today in cyberspace. Thus, abbreviated spelling, evidenced in forms such as xke (perche) and c6 (ci sei), are appearing in all kinds of CMC contexts. Will these become the basis of a new volgare? Is reduction in spelling a mirror of a more general tendency to reduce structure (syntax and morphology)?

Already, in written school texts and advertising this new volgare is making headway. There are, of course, corrective forces at work. But the synergy that exists between the real (F2F) and the hyperreal (CMC), as Baudrillard (1983) called it, is evident everywhere. This raises a set of related questions, because languages do indeed develop according to inherent forces of compression, which existed long before the Internet age. This was called the principle of economy by the French linguist Andre Martinet (1955). Grammatical and lexical structures become more efficient in form over time as people use them to carry out daily communication, rendering it increasingly more rapid and time-saving. But what sets the compression tendencies in CMC apart from all economizing tendencies of the past is the speed and extent to which they are guiding and even governing communicative behavior in all languages. Italian syntax, for instance, is showing more and more of a CMC style, with such categories as the periodo ipotetico della irrealta seemingly now only taught in school, almost in the same way that archeologists teach about fossils, and used almost exclusively in formal ways, such as in academic writing (Danesi, 2007).

An analysis of 100 common written texts (such as newspapers and magazines) published in Italy in 2012 were examined at the University of Toronto using an algorithm that was designed to sift out embedded clauses and then to classify them as hypothetical or not. Although this was a highly informal test of the hypothesis that the periodo ipotetico is disappearing, it nevertheless found that, of all embedded structures, the periodo ipotetico figured in less than 10% of all the collected textual data. A follow-up project on media transmissions (using YouTube), focusing on 20 current Italian broadcasts, found a similar pattern. The broadcasts were transcribed and then analyzed with the same algorithm. The weaknesses of this study are obvious: it made no distinction, for example, among register of texts, nor among discourse functions and audiences. Nevertheless, it did give an initial indication that certain structures may be disappearing. A second follow-up study of random Facebook sites (49 in total) in Italian showed an almost complete absence of the periodo ipotetico.

If LI is embedded in specific linguistic structures, then the implications of these tendencies in CMC are obvious. As in the case of i volgari, compressions of Latin forms led to subsequent adjustments of the emerging linguistic systems, including a greater reliance on syntax rather than case morphology. In other words, miniscule changes in phonology and writing have reverberating effects throughout the language system. The emergence of the new system then led to a sense of new identity, separate from the Latin-based one, and this led to the forging of Lis based on the new volgari. It would seem that as language forms adapt to CMC formats, changes in styles and registers are following suit.

Generally speaking, throughout Italy the characteristic features of dialectal pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are steadily disappearing, or attenuating, as a consequence of the influence that electronic media have had on speech habits, unless the dialect constitutes part of a conserving identity code, as some research shows. But even so, it is unlikely that local dialects anywhere on the Italian peninsula can survive the strong tendency to use common forms of 'e-language,' as it can be called, to communicate through the new digital media. For this reason, there is as much concern over the invasive nature of 'global English' into the Italian language, introduced into daily life through the Internet, as there was in the 18th century when writers inveighed against the invasion of French words and stylistic mannerisms into the language.

Marshall McLuhan (1969) claimed, before the advent of the Internet age, that the constant leveling off of group differences through the influence of the media would actually produce a negative reaction, at least temporarily, leading to new forms of allegiance to the group. This may explain why dialect speech in Italy is, paradoxically, undergoing a type of resurgence through digital media. It is doing so in three main ways: (1) as a complete adoption of the local dialect for inter-group communication in online groups; (2) as an occasional option for a similar purpose; (3) as part of a code-switching system to convey a new sense of regional group identity. This subdivision was extrapolated from an online survey of 1,500 people distributed evenly (500 each), living in three key dialect areas: Naples, Venice and Milan (Clivio,

Danesi and Maida-Nicol, 2011). Subjects were asked if they used dialect among group members (including family, close friends, etc.) who were cognizant of the difference between dialectal and standard forms of language in one of the three ways listed above. The subjects were chosen at random consisting mainly of university students in the three cities--students who volunteered to be a part of the survey after a generic e-mail was sent out to them with the help of colleagues teaching at universities in those cities. The age range of the subjects was from 18 to 29 years of age. The sample thus consisted of young people who will, presumably, dictate the future use of dialect speech. Overall, it was found that dialects are indeed part of an emerging new online identity code, but not in the same way as in the past. The tendency is to code-switch at the lexical level when it is relevant to in-group meaning-making, not to use the dialect as an option in place of Italian. Thus, a Neapolitan communicating with another Neapolitan online will use lexical items such as sfizio, scugnizzo, guaglione and others as indexes of identity solidarity, not as an engagement in the dialect as the communicating system.

The dialect that seems to have the highest level of allegiance is Venetian, followed by Neapolitan. The lowest level of local dialect use is in Milan, probably indicating its status as a global city, with English becoming the second language of virtually everyone interviewed. Overall, however, the average exclusive use of the dialect among group members showed that dialects are falling into disuse overall as primary codes of interaction. Code-switching for identity purposes, on the other hand, seems to be on the rise.

Given that social media such as Facebook are fast becoming loci where identity is forged through writing (profiles) and multimodality (photos, videos and so on), how is the identity-construction process unfolding and, indeed, does LI still matter? Because of the predominance of online communication, it comes as little surprise to see the study of this question burgeoning. Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (1999: 185) characterize online speech communities as groups 'whose joint engagement in some activity or enterprise is sufficiently intensive to give rise over time to a repertoire of shared practices,' among which emerging linguistic practices are dominant. This involves control over content and register depending on situation. In other words, language practices dovetail with identity practices (Bucholtz, 1999). As Spolsky (1999) suggests, language is not only a means for us to present our own notion of who we are, but it is also a way for others to project onto us their own suppositions of the way we must be. An overview of the work conducted on language and identity online can be found in Barton and Lee (2013). Generally, it shows that people are indeed renegotiating their identities in new ways and that these are more and more influencing the very sense of LI. The new forms, like the forms documented in the Appendix Probi, are indexes of an emerging new sense of LI. Interestingly, and more to the point of the present discussion, this LI is a virtual one, born of a proximate reality. It is therefore highly variable and this means that the F2F version of LI and the CMC version are now co-existent, as the previous survey pointed out--the university students were aware of the linguistic differences and assumed that possessing two LIs--online and offline--was a fact of life. The former can be called an e-LI (electronically forged LI) and the latter r-LI (real-world LI).

In many ways, the Internet has simply allowed people to 'reveal themselves' to anyone, not to just those in their immediate physical world. One presents a hidden Self, so to speak, through the e-LI. A quick search of the content of 1000 personal Facebook sites in 2010 revealed that discourse about oneself amounts to around 70% of site content; discourse related to others to around 25%; and the remaining 5% involves facts and information (Danesi, 2013). The Internet is clearly becoming a kind of format for Self-presentation, an ongoing script of Selfhood. It is in this environment of proximate contact that the rules of sociolinguistic identity-making are on the cusp of change.

Online media have become highly influential in the sense people give to words and texts on sites. These can be highly formal, as on blogs of a certain kind, to highly compressed and informal as on Twitter messages. In a study of South Korean youth, Kyongwon Yoon (2003) found that there were three kinds of relationships teens maintained via technology. The first was to connect primarily with those who were a part of their daily lives; for example, to keep in touch with school companions and friends in their immediate environment. The second was to maintain relationships with those who were part of a broader social network, such as friends who attended other schools. The third was to develop and acquire new friendships and to strengthen initial F2F encounters. In effect, Yoon concludes, the new technology has allowed young people to become more and more united to each other. A perusal of Facebook sites not only confirms this finding, it also shows that the identity profile posted online reflects diversity in relationships. So on the same profile one would find an identity system that reflected relationships with close friends that was different to presentations of oneself that were directed at others.

All this has clear implications for traditional LI theories. In the past the sense of Self was negotiated by people through interaction with others in real space. Today, identity has a much more virtual-pliable aspect to it, as can be seen by visiting profiles online. In other words, the new media are allowing people to become true interpreters of themselves, with or without input from others. In effect there is an inherent r-LI-versus-e-LI dichotomy at work in the constitution of identity today. Social networking sites are appealing to people not because they are virtual, but because they are self-constructed.

The future of identity

As e-LIs and r-LIs become more and more systematic aspects of overall LI, traditional notions of dialect, sociolinguistic communities and the like will change as well. Distance theory will merge with proximate theory to produce what may be called hybridization theory, or the view that two identities will co-exist. Those born in the Internet era are already products of this hybridization. Variously called 'N-Gen' (Tapscott, 1998), 'screenagers' (Rushkoff, 1996), and 'digital natives' (Prensky, 2001), they have already undergone this process. The reason is that there are now social aggregations that carry out dialogues through the Internet adapting to the decentralized nature of networked media. As the novelty of CMC wears off and people become accustomed to its requirements, everyone will become digital citizens. Identity is a construct, unlike Selfhood and character, which probably are more fixed versions of consciousness and self-awareness. Identities are products of social forces, adapting to them in various ways. As e-identities and r-identities merge there will be little awareness of the difference and an amalgam will result that will define the future course of identity formation.

In sum, the online world may indeed be a brave new hyperreal world. Yet it has many of the same characteristics of the old world order, especially when it comes to fashioning identity. In both the real and online worlds, identity has always been a matter of constructing oneself with the available resources. As Gelder (2007: 143) has aptly put it, the Internet offers people 'a realm where one's yearnings for community can at last find their realization.' In a McLuhanian sense, the Internet is a technological extension of our brains and thus our language faculty. If we find meaning in this hyperreal world, it is because we are part of it, literally. This does not mean that many of the problems of identity have disappeared. They are still there, but they are negotiated differently. In a sense the Internet has provided the perfect medium for people to write themselves into existence, rather than taking their identity from historical channels. Technology dictates the languages and the discourse forms in which we speak and think. If we do not use those languages, we will remain mute. And a mute identity is a nonexistent one; it reduces to raw consciousness.


This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.


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Marcel Danesi

University of Toronto, Canada

Corresponding author:

Marcel Danesi, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, St George Campus, Birge Carnegie, Room 26 (Victoria College), Toronto, ON M5S 2J7, Canada.


DOI: 10.1177/0014585814529223
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Date:Aug 1, 2014
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