Stefano Ondelli

(Università degli Studi
di Trieste)


Traditionally, Italian linguistics has considered political discourse as an example of the per- suasive use of rhetorical strategies by means of specific linguistic structures. The language of politicians is not a special language because it lacks proper terminology. However, research- ers have focused on its lexis from the perspective of its history, morphology and metaphorical uses, according to a traditional approach investigating the connection between the history of the Italian language and the history of Italian culture. In contrast to this, they have paid less attention to pragmatic aspects; i.e. they are more interested in the product than in the process, and aim for an overall description of a variety of Italian rather than specific texts. Nevertheless, over the last two decades Italian linguistics has faced a combination of «exter- nal» (the personalization and new modes of political communication) and «internal» factors (innovative research on Italian for specific purposes and the advent of corpus linguistics). Consequently, linguistic studies on political communication are shifting towards genre anal- ysis and pragmatics, calling for new theoretical and methodological approaches.

Keywords: text linguistics, corpus linguistics, pragmatics, stylistics, political discourse.


This paper concerns itself with the study of political communication from the viewpoint of linguistics, limited to Italian language and culture. Such a restriction is necessary since linguistic analysis is deeply rooted in the structures and communicative contexts of a given language and culture1. After providing a brief overview of the traditional approach to political discourse, in the following paragraphs I am going to illustrate the main changes that have occurred in the linguistic analysis of political texts in Italy since the turn of the century.

Traditionally, political discourse has been studied by Italian linguistics from stylistic (e.g. Contini, 1968: 540 considered Luigi Einaudi to be one of the fin- est authors of prose in the 1900s) and lexical-historical perspectives. Consequently, many researchers have described the evolution of the lexis of politics in history; Gualdo (2006: §8.2) also analyzed political terminology from the end of the 1700s through to Italian unification in terms of word formation and metaphorical uses and, since political oratory has always been connected to rhetoric (Eco, 1973: 93), many have investigated rhetorical figures in political texts (Cortelazzo, 2012; Dell’Anna and Lala, 2004: chapter III).

The perlocutionary effect (Austin, 1980) of political discourse may be derived from lexical, morphological, syntactic and argumentative resources, but the analyses of pragmatic implications have often been limited to the description of the context of communication (Dell’Anna, 2010) or linguistic traits such as deictic items, personal pronouns, vocative expressions, and discourse markers (Dell’Anna and Lala, 2004). In other words, Italian linguistics seems to be more interested in political language as a product (from a philological perspective) or structure (Van Dijk, 1997) than as a process. Traditionally, the discipline aims to describe linguistic features and relate them to the historical and cultural background of texts; until recently, only smaller efforts were made to assess the effectiveness of political discourse with a view to the addressees’ response, in contrast with interdisciplinary approaches such as politolin- guistics (Cedroni, 2014) or (critical) discourse analysis (Weiss and Wodak, 2003) 2.

It is worth noting that Italian linguists have always encountered difficulties in providing a unified description of the language of politicians, since it lacks the typical traits of special languages (monosemic terminology and structured genres). Additional distinctions have to be borne in mind between the language of political science and institutions and the language of politicians, as well as between ritual communication (focusing on identity and cohesion) and argumentative texts aimed at op- posing other political players and gaining visibility among voters (Antonelli, 2007: 88).

1 Unless otherwise specified, this paper refers to «linguistics» in the sense of what in Italian academia is known as «Italian linguistics», i.e. the study of the structures, history and uses of Italian. In addition to this, reference is made mainly to research conducted by Italian linguists on the language of politicians, leaving aside studies on broader issues such as computer-mediated communication, special languages, pragmatics and corpus linguistics.

2 A notable exception is Santulli (2005). Cedroni (2010: 15-17) also dwells upon the differ- ence between political discourse and political language.

External factors

The late twentieth and early twenty-first century have witnessed impor- tant changes in the political scene in Italy and in the theoretical framework of Italian linguistics. With reference to the aspects largely external to linguistics, political com- munication has undergone a process of personalization: political leaders have gained prominence over political movements. At the same time, new communication media have emerged with ensuing linguistic and textual innovations.

The personalization of the political debate

In Italy, 1994 marked the transition from the so-called First Republic to the Second Republic. The personalization of political discourse was likely the consequence of electoral reforms, also fostered by the strengthening role of TV propaganda. Although forerunners can be identified, this tendency became more apparent in the decades around the turn of the century and linguistic analyses have increasingly focused on individual leaders (Gualdo and Dell’Anna, 2004; Dell’Anna, 2010: 61). Of course, just as the history of literary language is told through the works of individual authors, the history of the language of politics is also derived through its protagonists, while little research has been devoted to the overall appraisal of political parties or ideologies (Dell’Anna, 2010: 61). However, the individual styles of politicians have been considered examples of a specialist language (Desideri 2011) essentially intend- ed to be a form of communication among the elites (Eco, 1973), characterized by oxymorons, reticence, euphemisms, metaphors (Mengaldo, 2014: 54-61), and sharing the same high language register of the quality newspapers and bureaucracy even on TV (Gualdo, 2006: § 8.6; Spina, 2012).

Of course, differences emerged in terms of ideology, text types and regional origin (Mengaldo, 2014: 57-58) but overviews of the language of the First Republic (Dell’Anna, 2010: § 4.3.2) refer to «politicalese» and provide a list of presumably generally shared traits. Such lists are not as frequent for the Second Republic (ibidem: § 4.4), mainly because the search for common features tends to account for new semantic fields (e.g. «new» vs. «old»), as well as personalization, mediatization, spectacularization etc. In linguistic research, despite contrary claims (i.e. describing the language of the Second Republic), «politicalese» is replaced by analyses of individual leaders, from Silvio Berlusconi (Bolasco et al., 2006) and Umberto Bossi (Desideri, 1993; 1994), to Matteo Renzi (Colussi, 2015; De Santis, 2015), Beppe Grillo (Ondelli, 2014; Petrilli, 2017) and Matteo Salvini (Ondelli, 2017; 2018a).

Political prose may be said to have undergone a similar process to literary prose (Antonelli, 2007: 163): the loss of a reference model leads to the emergence of different individual styles and therefore tracing overall tendencies is increasing- ly difficult. The wider range of communication modes, the blurring of the frontier between public and private, and the collapse of traditional ideologies have all contributed to the linguistic standardization of political movements (Antonelli, 2017: chapter 3). This has given space to the individual styles of leaders, who convey a sense of competence and reliability by communicating along the same linguistic wavelength as their audience.

There have been attempts to provide comprehensive overviews of this (Dell’Anna and Lala, 2004). However, in the absence of a quantitative appraisal (just a few examples are reported for each politician), one may wonder whether the linguistic traits under scrutiny are liable to emerge in any sample of language. Despite the search for «the language of the Second Republic», most studies have dealt with single political figures: it is not by chance that one of the most widely exploited rhetorical devices is the argumentum ad personam (Antonelli, 2007: 86).

New forms of communication

Although political discourse comprises different genres, parliamentary de- bates and party rallies during most of the 20th century accounted for the majority of official political texts analyzed by linguists. Before the foundation of private networks and the ensuing spectacularization through talk shows, even TV formats envisaged strictly regulated communicative exchanges, for example Tribuna politica, which fea- tured formal language similar to written Italian. The advent of new social media has led to «typed Italian» or «e-Italian» (Antonelli, 2007), characterized by greater infor- mality and a stronger interaction among interlocutors, mirrored by simplified and unstructured syntax. Another important feature is the fragmentation of information into shorter passages as a strategy to capture users’ attention.

The age of spectacle gave way to the age of communication (ibidem), which in Italy has contributed to the oralization of language. During the second half of the 20th century, the Italian population gradually gave up local dialects in favor of the national language in everyday communication (De Mauro, 2014) and, at the be- ginning of the 21st century, colloquial registers started being accepted within a broad range of contexts, including political discourse (with the exception of parliamentary debates and international meetings). A shift took place from the «superiority paradigm» (expressed through the obscurity of «politicalese», reflecting the status of politicians) to the «mirroring paradigm», in which politicians and voters share the same language (Antonelli, 2007: § 4.3), including vulgarity (Ondelli, 2016; Antonelli, 2017: chapter 6). Significantly, endoxa are included among the most widely used rhetorical strategies.

Spina (2012: part II and III) shows that Twitter has introduced the fol- lowing novelties into the language of politicians: concrete and succinct lexis, simplified syntax, indexicality, fragmentation, interactionality and a mixture of written and spoken language. Undeniably, after TV, the success of blogs, Facebook posts and tweets has reduced the formality of political communication, but informality may be perceived as an overall development within Italian society: Renzi’s rolled-up sleeves and Salvini’s sweatshirts merely reflect the flip-flops, torn jeans and unrestricted use of tu (the familiar pronoun) in today’s workplace. By focusing on the role of the media, researchers in linguistics have partly neglected the social background to this phenomenon and continued to use the standard Italian of some thirty years ago as a touchstone for their analyses. Similarly to what has happened in other disciplines, this has led to the impression of the simplification of political texts, but one should not forget that juxtaposed sentences, swearwords and emotional punctuation do not necessarily translate into improved readability, as will be shown in the concluding paragraph below.

Internal factors

With regard to changes within the discipline of linguistics, not limited to the study of political discourse, the theoretical debate regarding languages for special purposes has focused increasingly on genres and pragmatics and, from a methodolog- ical viewpoint, the increased availability of texts in electronic format has paved the way for corpus linguistics. The following paragraphs illustrate the repercussions on the analysis of political language.

New approaches to Italian for special purposes

The language of politicians is one of the diaphasic varieties of Italian (Dell’Anna, 2010: 15), characterized by unstable terminology and loose generic struc- tures. When Italian researchers started focusing on Italian for special purposes, they realized that political communication features a hybrid language, strongly dependent on the context of communication (Beccaria, 1973a). Its unifying trait was identified as being its pragmatic function (fidem facere et animos impellere), expressed through

rhetorical and semantic resources. Nevertheless, researchers have focused on the lex- ical level (Dell’Anna, 2010: 60-61), since terminology has always been regarded as the pillar of special languages. Although Beccaria (1973b: 22) has noted that there is no political vocabulary per se (any word can be used as a political term in the right context), political lexis remains «attractive» for linguists because of its repercussions on everyday language, its expressive and metaphorical strength and the fact that the origin of new words and expressions can easily be traced back to a given politician (ibidem: 24). Lists of neologisms also remain highly frequent after the inception of the Second Republic (Dell’Anna and Lala, 2004; Dell’Anna, 2010: 93-97; Petrilli, 2015: 125-177), including dictionaries (Novelli and Urbani, 1995; 1998) and studies on old (e.g. -ismo as in berlusconismo, veltronismo, dipietrismo etc.) and new suffixes (e.g. –poli as in tangentopoli, affittopoli etc.), new names for old parties (e.g. movimento, alleanza, polo, patto, rete etc.) and new symbols (e.g. oak trees, donkeys, daisies etc.).

Less attention has been paid to pragmatics, despite important exceptions such as Desideri (1984: 46), but this is starting to change, and not only in political communication (Lombardi Vallauri, 2019; Lombardi Vallauri and Masia, 2014; 2016a; 2016b). Probably, this shift has been encouraged by interaction with other non-verbal codes made possible by new media. Furthermore, in the past, political discourse could easily be distinguished from everyday language through lexis laden with ideology, whereas today’s persuasive rhetoric hides beneath the surface of everyday language, hence a greater role is attributed to the pragmatic strategies of political marketing.

The same holds true for the study of text types. Although the existence of different political texts with different purposes has always been acknowledged (slogans, ads, rallies, manifestos, fliers etc.; Sergio, 2008), new forms of media have developed modes of communication that are unprecedented both structurally and contextually. Finally, although they shape the morphosyntactic level, pragmatic func- tions also emerge from whole texts. Consequently, political communication has been involved in the new approach to special languages accounting for text types and genres, as shown by several recent essays explicitly dealing with Renzi’s Facebook posts, Grillo’s blog, Salvini’s tweets etc., rather than «the language of politicians» (Librandi and Piro, 2016).

The advent of corpora

Computer mediated communication has made available a large amount of textual data in electronic format and, although its starting point was lexicography, corpus linguistics in Italy is opening up to new lines of investigation including phonetic, morphological, syntactic, textual and pragmatic aspects, also thanks to tech- nological innovations. Admittedly, few studies have so far made use of the full range of possibilities offered by the (semi)automatic analysis of textual data. With notable exceptions (Bolasco et al., 2006; Spina, 2012; Giuliano, 2016), when corpora are men- tioned (Vetrugno et al., 2008), they simply refer to more or less large collections of texts, even though their analysis is not accompanied by explicit quantitative measures and little discussion is devoted to compilation and balance (Dell’Anna and Lala, 2004).

In general, the analyses of corpora also persist on the lexis level because it is easily measurable and leads to the identification of a politician’s specific themes (Antonelli, 2007: 88-92). Syntax and morphology have been studied less extensively, partly because the historical and philological background of many Italian researchers has engendered a certain distrust of the so-called distant reading. Consequently, few researchers are familiar with the methods and tools for the automatic analysis of texts: It is not by chance that some authors mentioned in this paragraph belong to different disciplines, such as statistics and sociology (e.g. Bolasco and Giuliano). Some of the most urgent problems which need to be tackled in the future include the pre-processing of oral texts (Telve, 2014), tweets and Facebook posts, and the devel- opment of effective protocols for corpus compilation and balance (Ondelli, 2018b).

Research prospects: the case for simplification

I close this overview of recent developments in Italian linguistics in the study of political communication by illustrating a specific research question com- bining both text and corpus linguistics. As already mentioned, many researchers (not only linguists and not only in Italy) claim that the last two decades have witnessed a simplification of political discourse (Dell’Anna and Lala, 2004; Bolasco et al., 2006; Dell’Anna, 2010; Petrilli, 2015), mainly with the purpose of wooing the electorate. However, the relevant literature in Italy lacks systematic comparisons based on fac- tual evidence, according to the model provided by Lim (2008). The methodology may be based on readability indexes and lexicometric measures, but the specific needs of diachronic comparisons, especially in connection with the linguistic competences of the Italian population, must also be considered (Benoit et al., 2019).

Since the focus has shifted from the form of the message to its effects, simple language and simplistic contents are being confused. Moreover, little mea- surable evidence has been produced confirming this alleged simplification trend. For example, Giuliano (2016) has analyzed parliamentary debates between 1948 and 2011 using quantitative methods and has found that the incidence of Italian Basic Vocabulary3 in parliamentary debates is higher than in written non-fiction texts but lower than in the press, and that no increasing trend emerges in the transition between the First and Second Republic. The same holds true for readability levels3, which remain quite low, and the mean length of sentences.

Additional evidence opposing the idea of a gradual simplification in po- litical discourse has been provided by Spina (2012: chapter 10; 2016). The tweets of 40 Italian politicians recorded greater lexical density and richness than political com- munication on TV (unsurprising, since both written and spoken texts were compared), showing that syllogisms such as «tweets are short and grammatically fragmented, therefore they are easier to understand» should be carefully weighed against the available evidence. Tavosanis (2016) has obtained similar results from the analysis of Facebook posts, which are lexically denser than tweets but occupy a position halfway between the Italian used on Twitter and on TV in terms of lexical richness and hapax percentage. In the past, Amenta (2011) has also noted that the websites of political parties bear traces of linguistic simplification only where it is useful for rhetorical and stylistic purposes, while formal traits, such as adjective doublets, continue to be main- tained. Finally, a study conducted on the end-of-year addresses of Italian Presidents is the only available example of diachronic research on a single genre with quantitative methods (Cortelazzo and Tuzzi, 2007). Sandro Pertini (1978-1984) was the first to use shorter sentences (thus increasing readability), but not all his successors followed suit.

In future research, the recommendation is to avoid comparing different text types, given the risks this brings. For example, when providing my students with evidence of the lowering of registers in today’s Italian, I show extracts from political press conferences (Tribuna elettorale) broadcast on TV in the 1970s and talk shows from the early 2010s. This may be useful didactically, but it is also a methodological mistake because I am comparing two different genres which in turn call for different linguistic choices. The fact that certain TV shows have disappeared does not depend on politics, politicians or political communication: as has been said before, it is a part of an overall phenomenon affecting all aspects of Italian society.

Finally, a few words on technological progress and communicative skills. Not long ago, Gualdo (2013: § VI.5) stated that the internet has not led to specific novelties in the language of politicians, who simply recycle texts drafted for other channels, although some features mirror better exploitation of new media: short- er paragraphs, simpler syntax, the use of figures of repetition and keywords. Spina (2012) also concluded that a third of the politicians she analyzed employed Twitter as a channel to convey traditional messages, and only part of the others were to some extent aware of the need to ensure dialogue and interaction. It is doubtful that today Salvini or Grillo share the same naive approach to new technologies. Things change very quickly.

3 Approximately the 7,000 most commonly used words. The 2016 version was used: https://www.

4 According to the Gulpease index:

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