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Study on the Use of Romance Languages on the Internet

A new written form of communication thanks to chat rooms: Prof. Dr Rolf Kailuweit, professor of Romance studies at the University of Freiburg, demonstrates that communicative responsibility is not dispensed with in French, Italian, and Spanish chats, despite the short-lived nature of online comments.


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Foto: Universität Freiburg


Rolf Kailuweit suggests that we need to reconsider the function of chatting and the relationship between medium and linguistic form. He argues that chatting is more than just simply typing comments as one would in an informal conversation and that in the future it could even lead to the formation of a specific new tradition in the Romance languages. Kailuweit’s research draws on protocols of chats in French, Italian, and Spanish.


  • Time Constraints Lead to New Forms of Writing

More and more often, chats exhibit language patterns which are normally found only in spoken language. This is due to the purpose of a chat room — a place in which people who often have never met in real life can engage in an informal discussion. But even more striking is that the communicative conditions of the medium are leading participants to replace traditional written forms of expression with new forms of writing. Time is an important factor in this development: The participants of a chat need to formulate their thoughts quickly to be involved in the virtual conversations. Contributions to a chat are thus considerably shorter than those in verbal communication. This leads to an increased use of abbreviations, such as numerals, as in 9 instead of neuf. Such abbreviations are reminiscent of shorthand and dictation, but chats have also produced new innovations: The communicative use of pictorial symbols is indispensable for the virtual form of a conversation. A welcome kiss on the cheeks, for example, is represented symbolically as :o :o. This demonstrates clearly that chats are not merely replacing traditional writing but bringing about a new form of written communication.


  • Complex Communication

The commonly advocated position that chats represent an exchange which is equivalent to verbal communication needs to be revised. An external feature of chatting makes it more complex than verbal communication: Every act in the conversation must be represented by language. This is true of emotional actions like a welcome kiss or a farewell ritual as well as for reactions that are self-evident in a real conversation, like laughing, reflecting on what was just said, nodding in approval, or shaking one’s head in disapproval.


  • Contributions to Chats Are Not Spontaneous

Despite the complexity of this form of communication, contributions to chats are commonly regarded as spontaneous due to their brevity and the brief intervals between them. Kailuweit regards this judgment as misguided: “If spontaneity means concentrating on the content and not reflecting on the linguistic form in which one is saying something, then chat communication is not simply spontaneous.” As Kailuweit’s protocols clearly demonstrate, form evidently does play an important role in chat communication. For instance, the participants also try to catch the attention of other participants by using characters in original ways.


  • Possible Beginnings of a New Linguistic Tradition

Kailuweit demonstrates that the commonly advocated position that chat communication simply carries verbal conversations over into the realm of the new media is untenable. This is clearly shown by the new forms of writing in chats, their complexity, and the important role of form, which is by no means spontaneous. In the future, the innovations of chatting could even lead to the rise of specific, new traditions in the individual Romance languages.

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Kailuweit, Rolf

Prof. Dr. Rolf Kailuweit

Rolf Kailuweit, born in 1965 in Berlin, has served as professor for Romance languages and media science at the University of Freiburg since 2004. He is also speaker of the board of directors of Freiburg’s new degree program in cultural media studies. His research interests include the syntax-semantics interface, Spanish in the La Plata region, Corsica, and media theory in theater, film, and new media. Prof. Kailuweit’s two current projects are an investigation of the semantic reasons for syntactic alternation in the Romance languages and a study on the construction of language and media in the Rio de la Plata cultural area.


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