Excessive language in public discourse

International multilingual conference at the University of Helsinki, 10-11 March 2022

Organised by the CoCoLaC reserch community

In the current post-truth era, impoliteness and verbal violence take new forms. The digital turn in communication and the rise of populism and extremism in politics are among the reasons behind this new, widely spread communication culture in which truth is not a high value and in which appeals to emotion and personal belief are important persuasive devices. Abusive and threatening remarks both in speech and writing are going viral over social media. Often such content expresses intense prejudice against individuals or particular groups, on the basis of ethnicity, gender, nationality, political ideology, disability, race, religion or sexual orientation. At worst, verbal aggression leads to violent outcomes.

Indeed, in the present-day public space, we encounter voluntarily excessive language use that we perceive as something that used to be kept private. The excessiveness of language use may pertain to the immediate interaction context in which interlocutors behave in an impolite manner towards each other. Excess may also characterize language use in which ranting, provoking or slandering are not directed at a specific interlocutor but at more distant individuals or social groups, for instance. Such excessive language is produced in public not only by anonymous internet users but also by people who expose their name and identity, ranging from private persons to politicians and other public figures giving speeches or publishing posts in social media. Further, for instance so-called alternative news outlets publish excessive content in guise of journalistic articles.

However, linguistic excess, impoliteness, and verbal violence as discursive strategies are also widely used by various grassroots and emancipatory political movements. From Vietnam War protests, Black radicals of the Civil Rights movement, and “Queer Nation” during the HIV epidemic, to contemporary anti-assimilationist LGBT+ communities, “Black Lives Matter”, Antifa, and climate activists – breaching the norms of polite speech and civility in public spaces has been a means of challenging the status quo and empowering marginalized communities. Thus public online and offline spaces become sites of discursive struggles in which linguistic excess may be a tool to either reproduce or contest existing relations of power.

The aim of this conference is to explore, from the perspective of linguistics and communication studies, the excessive forms and functions that impoliteness and verbal violence have in public communication, as well as the prospects and limitations of linguistic excess for emancipatory politics and countering hate speech. We welcome both empirical and theoretical contributions. We specifically welcome papers with contrastive and/or comparative approaches.

The conference will include – but will not be limited to – the following topics:

  • The study of hate speech, including racist hate speech or racist discourse, in public communication.
  • The characteristics of hate speech in spoken data, including the phonetic, lexical and syntactic features that characterize spoken hate speech and that distinguish it from other types of speech and/or from written hate speech.
  • Prosodic features and other phonetic features in the expression of (im)politeness and/or in expressions considered as (in)appropriate.
  • The relationship between linguistic expressions and (im)politeness in social contexts, as well as the role of politeness in language change and, in turn, the diachronic changes to the linguistic manifestation of politeness.
  • The grammatical means used (i) to convey respect and consideration for the interlocutors, (ii) to create interpersonal relationships on the basis of linguistic and social cooperative principles, (iii) to comply with the rules for what is considered to be appropriate behaviour, and (iv) to implement the opposite behaviour. These means may include (im)polite speech acts; (im)polite forms of address, titles or honorifics; special use of pronouns; epistemic, evaluative or speech-act adverbs and modals to express the speaker’s attitude and commitment towards their statements; specific lexical and pragmatic choices.
  • Theoretical pragmatic and sociolinguistic accounts of cooperative principles and of the notions of face and social distance.
  • The role of gender in recent research on linguistic (im)politeness and on the interdependencies between language and identities.
  • The linguistic strategies to create authoritative speech, such as the first-person epistemic authority, which, when extended to generic first-person plural, may confer epistemic immediacy on personal statements, especially in populist speech.
  • The interplay between technological affordances and excessive language use.

Keynote speakers

  • Konstanze Marx (Universität Greifswald)
  • Simon Meier-Vieracker (Technische Universität Dresden)
  • Simo Määttä (University of Helsinki)
  • Sahana Udupa (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

All the keynote lectures will be in English.

Language policy

The conference is multilingual: you can present your paper in French, German, Italian, Spanish or English. Please write your abstract in the language of your presentation. All the keynote lectures will be in English.

Abstract proposals

The conference will consist of plenary lectures and regular presentations. Regular presentations will be given a slot of 30 minutes (20 for presentation + 10 for discussion).

Depending on the circumstances, online participation will be made possible.

Please submit your abstract of 1,500 to 2,500 characters (including spaces and references) in one of the conference languages through https://elomake.helsinki.fi/lomakkeet/111400/lomake.html by September 10th, 2021.

Notification of acceptance: by the end of October, 2021.

Conference fee
Regular: 60 €
Reduced (for students and PhD students, pensioners, unemployed researchers): 20 €

Organising committee
Mélanie Buchart, Silvio Cruschina, Gina Dautartas, Anton Granvik, Lotta Lehti (chair), Hartmut Lenk and Mari Wiklund

You can contact the organisers at exlang@helsinki.fi.

Conference website

https://www2.helsinki.fi/en/conferences/excessive-language-in-public-discourse.