Language use in computer mediated communication (CMC):

WhatsApp and SMS in multilingual Switzerland.


What is specific for the Swiss language use in CMC messages?

  1. While spelling and lexical choice in CMC data often deviate heavily from the norm, underlying linguistic structures (i.e. the grammar) remain stable.
  2. Informants adjust their language use to the respective topic and, more importantly, to their communication partner(s).
  3. Code-Switching, i.e. the use of more than one language or dialect within a message, is more frequent in multilingual Switzerland than in other countries.

Under the direction of Prof. Elisabeth Stark (Institute for Romance Studies), Swiss text messages (SMS, since 2009) and WhatsApp messages (since 2014) have been analyzed as to their most important features and the public discourse on them. The empirical basis for these studies, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, are two large databases of authentic messages sent in by the Swiss population following an according appeal in the Swiss media. The projects are led by UZH with three other universities (Berne, Neuchâtel and Leipzig) participating. Research is concerned (and published) with all four national languages and their varieties: German (dialectal and non-dialectal), French, Italian and Romansh. More than 30 papers and three books have been published so far. In both projects, protecting the informants’ privacy is one of our foremost interests. Accordingly, we only use data for which we have the explicit consent and that are fully anonymized. In the first project, SMS communication in Switzerland: Facets of linguistic variation in a multilingual country (SNSF: CRSII1_136230; data collection: 2009; duration: 2011-2014; tokens in the corpus: 0.5 Mio), traditional text messages were investigated. The most important research topics were code-switching (between languages and dialects) and grammatical phenomena such as ellipsis (omissions) in French and German, the variation in interrogative structures in French as well as the use of the dialect in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland (Tessin).

The second project, What’s Up, Switzerland? Language, Individuals and Ideologies in mobile messaging (SNF: CRSII1_136230; data collection: 2014; duration: 2016-2018; tokens: 5.5 Mio) partly builds on the first one, as the WhatsApp messages are also compared to the results for SMS messages. Research into code-switching and ellipsis will be followed up and extended, since we now have whole communications available in complete chats, compared to isolated utterances in the older SMS. New topics include the graphical makeup of messages (regarding spelling and use of emojis) as well as the communicative behavior of individual informants and the way they adapt to their communication partners. Additionally, we are interested into the discourse of the media (Swiss and international) on language use in WhatsApp and other forms of digital communication.

Our data collections rely on the explicit will of the Swiss population to make their authentic messages available. Only with the availability of big data of this type can we make valid statements about language use in electronic mobile communication in Switzerland.


Project members:

  • Lead: Elisabeth Stark, UZH; Coordination: Simone Ueberwasser, UZH
  • WhatsApp: (Post-Docs: Samuel Felder (Leipzig), Vanessa Jaroski (Berne), Rossella Maraffino (Berne), Etienne Morel (Neuchâtel), Christina Margrit Siever (UZH), Franziska Stuntebeck (UZH). Co-lead: Federica Diémoz (Neuchâtel), Christa Dürscheid (UZH), Silvia Natale (Bern), Beat Siebenhaar (Leipzig), Crispin Thurlow (Berne). Computational linguistics: Anne Göhring (UZH)
  • SMS: Claudia Bucher (Leipzig), Claudia Cathomas (Berne), Nicola Ferretti (Berne), Karina Frick (UZH), Alex Guryev (Neuchâtel), Etienne Morel (Neuchâtel), Aurélia Robert-Tissot (UZH); Co-lead: Marie-José Béguelin (Neuchâtel), Christa Dürscheid (UZH), Matthias Grünert (Zurich/Fribourg), Bruno Moretti (Berne), Beat Siebenhaar (Leipzig). Computerlinguistik: Beni Ruef (UZH)


Graphic artists:

Lisa Senn und Michael Koller