The Power of National Identity at the Grapho-Phonological Level: A Case in Italian

Author: Stefano Presutti (University of Aix Marseille, France)
Speaker: Stefano Presutti
Topic: Language Ideologies
COMELA 2021 General Session


Along the axes of space and time, the national identity has constantly been present during the standardization process of many European languages. That happens at all levels and modalities of the language system: from phonology to vocabulary, from speech to writing.

The complexity of some language structures is still today caused by the maintenance of a rigid and bounded relationship between language and national identity. This impedes to improve speed and accuracy during its acquisition process in native and non-native speaking contexts, and it generates barriers within and between language communities.

This study examines how strong is the boundedness of national identity in Italian even at the grapho-phonological level, and it explores diatopic and diastratic differences within the language community.

Particularly, we focus the attention on the palatal lateral approximant phoneme and graphemes. We investigate why and how a high marked phoneme (Ladefoged and Maddieson, 1996) and its corresponding complex graphemes were introduced on the national language system. This happened despite the widespread difficulty on its usage, acoustically and orthographically, by most Italians who were non-Florentine speakers and low-literate people. Still nowadays the palatal lateral is one of the most problematic Italian grapho-phonemes learnt by natives and non-natives (Tresoldi et al., 2018; Tressoldi et al., 2017).

The findings of our historical-linguistic and sociolinguistic points of view demonstrate that the presence of the palatal lateral in the Italian grapho-phonological system is strictly linked with an old concept of national identity. The effort related to its comprehension and production became over time a symbol of how to speak and to write properly in Italian.

It would be vital if future language policies will consider the benefits of depowering the influence of old national identity demarcations in language structures, towards a contemporary transnational fluidity and a simplification of the acquisition processes.


Ladefoged P. and Maddieson I. (1996). The Sounds of the World’s Languages. Oxford-Cambridge: Blackwell.
Tresoldi M., Barillari M. R., Ambrogi F., Sai E., Barillari U., Tozzi E., Scarponi L. and Schindler A. (2018). “Normative and Validation Data of an Articulation Test for Italian-Speaking Children”. In: International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology 110, pp. 81‑86. DOI 10.1016/j.ijporl.2018.05.002.
Tressoldi P., Cornoldi C. and Re A.M. (2017). BVSCO-2: batteria per la valutazione della scrittura e della competenza ortografica-2: manuale e materiali per le prove. Firenze: Giunti Edu.

Keywords: language ideologies, politics of language, Italian identity, phonology, writing