Project Overview

Social media channels have come to play an increasingly large role in our everyday lives and communication. They provide a context in which people across the world can communicate, share knowledge, exchange messages, and interact with each other irrespective of the distance and the social differences between them, thus allowing greater freedom of expression and empowering individual voices. At the same time, however, these social media channels also enable anti-social behaviour, cyberbullying, online aggression, and hate speech. In this new communication culture, which has been adopted and adapted in other contexts such as politics and other forms of public speech, appeals to emotions and personal beliefs are important persuasive devices. Verbal aggressions, offensive propaganda, and the construction of authority and subordination both in speech and in writing have become frequent traits and instruments of communication in various spheres of our society.

Language is a key element in the construction and reinforcement of social identities, and as a consequence, also in the creation and diffusion of stereotypes, discrimination, and social injustices. The use of language to attack an individual or group based on attributes such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, nationality, political ideology, disability or sexual orientation constitutes the basis of what is now known as hate speech. In this project, researchers will investigate and discuss hate speech from a linguistic perspective. The main objectives are:

1) IDENTIFICATION: to identify the common linguistic characteristics and features of hate speech in different domains of communication, focusing on Italian as an empirical testbed;

2) APPLICATION: to produce an annotated catalogue of these features that could serve as a guideline for the recognition (with the additional help of natural language processing methods) and avoidance of hate speech, as well as for the distinction between hate speech and freedom of expression;

3) EXTENSION: to compare and contrast our findings with datasets from other European languages, so as to assess the viability of extending our results to other languages and to investigate the possible distinction between general vs language-specific features of hate speech.


The linguistic contribution to the identification of hate speech will have a wide domain of application and a broad social impact. The response to hate speech should not be the limitation or repression of free speech; instead, social media users and people exposed to public speeches should be educated in the recognition and hence avoidance of hate speech. The results of this project will therefore make a valuable contribution in all areas of communication that may be affected by hate speech.

First, findings can be used as teaching materials in University courses on communication, pragmatics, text analyses, and general linguistics, particularly as part of degrees in Italian Studies. The material will initially look at Italian, but will then be adapted to other languages.

Second, the guidelines will also appeal to all journalists, writers, and public figures who, for personal or professional reasons, are trying to avoid hate speech in their texts or speeches and want to communicate in a more polite way and at a more appropriate level. They will also increase awareness among users of social media, helping them to communicate in a just, fair, and non-offensive way. Individuals or institutions engaged in legal studies might be interested in this work, insofar as the guidelines could help legislators, judges and lawyers to arrive at a more precise definition of hate speech and offensive language. Several countries either make no mention of hate speech in their current legislation or use broad and ambiguous definitions and applications. A linguistic definition of hate speech that goes beyond the more straightforward and overt use of offences and insults could help us to understand what is illegal and what is not.

These areas of potential application and social impact will ultimately contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals of quality of education, equality, peace, justice, and strong institutions, and to the defence and protection of human rights.

Project Team

Project leader

  • Silvio Cruschina, Helsingin Yliopisto - syntax, dialectology and language variation, information structure, syntax-pragmatics interface

Project co-leader

  • Chiara Gianollo, Università di Bologna - semantics, historical linguistics, language and migration, multilingualism in education systems

Senior project members

  • Margarita Borreguero Zuloaga, Universidad Complutense de Madrid - pragmatics, information structure, discourse analysis, discourse markers, text typology and semiotics, contrastive linguistics
  • Stefania Marzo , KU Leuven - quantitative methods in corpus linguistics, variationist sociolinguistics, contact linguistics, language standardization
  • Alicja Paleta, Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie - language teaching and education, translation theory, sociolinguistics
  • Antonella Sorace, University of Edinburgh - bilingualism over the lifespan, language and cognition, experimental linguistics, public engagement of science, the lexicon- syntax interface

Junior project members

  • Maria Garraffa, Bilingualism Matters at the University of Edinburgh - language diversity, minority languages, language impairments, language acquisition, sentence processing
  • Edoardo Cavirani , KU Leuven - phonology, phonetics, syntax, computational linguistics
  • Stefano De Pascale, KU Leuven - computational linguistics, quantitative methods, distributional analyses

Further Reading

See the recent Council of Europe work on Hate Speech, which includes specific recommendations on combating hate speech.


Looking for Italians living in the UK

The 'Bilingualism and Hate Speech Experiences' study needs participants to help with research.


Prof Antonella Sorace
Professor of Developmental Linguistics, University of Edinburgh / Founding Director of Bilingualism Matters More
Mattia Zingaretti
PhD Student in Linguistics & English Language, University of Edinburgh More
Dr Maria Garraffa
Bilingualism Matters Honorary Member; Associate Professor University of East Anglia/ Research Professor MultiLing-Univerisity of Oslo/ British Council UK-Malaysia Board Member

Partners and Funders