34. Social media and the production of linguistic knowledge

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Lukas Duane
Ph. D. Université de Luxembourg


Academia is mainly responsible for determining what falls under the category of “language” and what under “dialect”. More precisely, academic knowledge generally is the main source of legitimation for languages and their standard varieties. The knowledge that builds up through the years in university departments, conferences, and journals provides a foundation and a justification to the way linguistic variability is categorised and understood across society. However, on occasions, some social actors may confront this, mainly due to the role of language as a political driver. This paper discusses how the new communicative conditions set by social media support social actors in challenging academia’s production of linguistic knowledge.

I will do so by briefly discussing a current case from the Balearic Islands. In this region, both Catalan and Castilian are official languages; Catalan as the archipelago’s autochthonous or indigenous language and Castilian as the language of the Spanish State. Since 2013, however, a few “Balearist” language activist associations have been defending that a “Balearic” language, and not the current Catalan, must share official status with Castilian as its authentic autochthonous language. These activists criticize the excessive standardizing influence of the Catalan language on Balearic vernaculars and argue that the two are not part of the same linguistic system. Similar stances had existed for decades in the archipelago, but were more scattered, bounded to individual islands, and without any political or social effects.

These recent “Balearist” activists are a reaction to Catalonia’s political momentum for independence and their main aim is to detach the Balearic Islands from the linguistic and political Catalan project. To achieve this, Balearist activists support more use of Castilian in the administration and in schools, while at the same time they innovate and try to promote “Balearic”, a technical term which dialectologists use to refer to the bundle of Catalan varieties spoken in the islands. However, speakers of these varieties make no use of such “Balearic” term and instead refer to their specific island’s speech, as in “I speak Majorcan”. Moreover, the belief that these island speeches are varieties of the Catalan language is socially hegemonic and firmly underpinned by academic knowledge. As such, Balearist activists depart from a marginal position in terms of knowledge production. My research on their last years’ efforts in social media sheds light on how proponents of alternative linguistic understandings can try to accumulate knowledge and legitimacy – that is, on the politics of linguistic knowledge in our current communicative context (Duane, 2018).

My analysis shows how Balearist activists have found in social media a key site for knowledge production. They have used social media’s inherent representational control to create online spaces where they can police language in top-down conditions that transform them into experts in their supporters’ eyes. Also, from all types of sources, these activists compose a regular flow of posts about the true history, identity, language, and politics of the Balearic Islands. These posts about the authentic Balearic ancestors, flags and language always advance a Balearist vision whose aim is to disentangle the islands from cultural representations associated with Catalonia or the Catalan language, while simultaneously naturalizing the archipelago’s Hispanic frame.

What these Balearist activists do in social media is not so different from what Jan Blommaert describes in Grassroots Literacy (2008), an ethnography about three historiographic texts by three grassroots writers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Blommaert argues that the three texts, which are “polyphonic complexes” made out of everything the authors get access to, render their historiographic purpose ‘ineffective’. The three texts reflect their authors’ literacy regimes, ones which are very distant to the ones of academic history-makers. Blommaert explains that people not fully inserted into elite knowledge economies “belong to a particular type of knowledge economy, one in which access to the resources required for the genre they try to perform is restricted. [They] write an elite genre with non-elite resources” (2008, p. 176, emphasis in original). This explanation focuses on how people convert available sources of information into semiotic products devised for a particular genre – historiography, in the case of the unsuccessful Congolese writers Blommaert analyses.

The Balearist activists that are currently trying to participate in linguistic debates in the Balearic Islands have also crafted semiotic products out of many non-elite resources. What is most interesting in their case, however, is that they heavily rely in social media as their space in which to craft, invest, and showcase their linguistic knowledge. From this view, Balearist activists use their social media sites to produce an unfolding and particular knowledge proposition that confronts the hegemonic one. They try to participate in a linguistic debate without resorting to academia. That is, they engage in an elite knowledge production arena with non-elite resources, just like Blommaert’s Congolese writers attempted to produce effective historiographic texts.

There is, however, an important difference between the knowledge production attempt by Blommaert’s grassroots historians and Balearist language activists. The latter assemble and devise semiotic products according to their activist interest, which is to detach Balearic varieties from the Catalan language while assuming the islands’ Hispanic political frame, and to spread these products in particular social media sites that become interest networks (Nahon & Hemsley, 2013). Activists build these interest networks where similar semiotic products continuously circulate for a same public, thus giving shape to their interest. The constant reinforcement loops in these social media sites strengthen the beliefs that initially attracted supporters while, at the same time, they allow supporters to become familiar with the activists’ proposition and their cultural codes and frames. For people gathering in these social media sites, knowledge gradually sediments from the succession of activist semiotic products that activists share.

The case of Balearist activists addresses the communication turning-point that social media represents. Social media are allowing people to gather and challenge the establishment, as well as long-standing beliefs and knowledge, in line with their ideological positions. This allows for political developments such as the Spanish 15M or the 2011 Arab Spring, but also for scientific questionings such as Trump’s neglect of global warming, or linguistic questionings such as the ones Balearist activists try to put forward. As in other fields of society and its established knowledge production legitimacies, what fits into the categories of cultural and linguistic diversity will be questioned from outside academia according to shifting political interests. Academia should prepare itself to produce convincing and effective responses to these unexpected challenges.


Blommaert, J. (2008). Grassroots literacy: Writing, identity and voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge.

Duane, L. (2018). The institution of linguistic dissidence in the Balearic Islands: ideological dynamics of Catalan standardisation (Doctoral dissertation). University of Luxembourg and Open University of Catalonia. Retrieved from: http://openaccess.uoc.edu/webapps/o2/handle/10609/78645

Nahon, K. & Hemsley, J. (2013). Going Viral. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press