Age-Specific Issues. Language, Spaces, Technologies

by Kim S. Grego (Volume editor) Alessandra Vicentini (Volume editor) Virpi Ylänne (Volume editor)
©2023 Edited Collection 280 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 298


This volume is a collection of studies dealing with age or, rather, ages, mainly from a linguistic viewpoint, but also accommodating inputs from other disciplinary perspectives. It focuses on the linguistic, social, economic and ethical aspects of social groups defined in terms of age – which clearly includes seniors but is, of course, not limited to that. In a global setting where spaces are constantly being redefined, new technologies and phenomena like the COVID-19 pandemic exert a substantial influence on how ages are perceived, seen and constructed. Within such a complex and multi-layered context, the chapters of this book provide attempts at showcasing realities connected with language, ages and, in general, the discourses surrounding them.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Discourses of Ages: Representations and Reflections
  • Section 1 General Overview on Ageism
  • Stereotypes of Ageing in Intergenerational Talk and in Media Representations (Virpi Ylänne)
  • Images of Age in Contemporary Birthday Cards (Judith M. Lejeck)
  • Section 2 Young Age
  • Age and Ageism in Greta Thunberg’s Climate Activism (Maria Cristina Paganoni)
  • Section 3 Age and the Female Gender
  • Addressing Women and Ebola in Specialized Discourse: A Corpus-Based Study (Francesca Cappellini)
  • Discursive (De/Re)constructions of Identity and the Age/Gender Interface: From Geriatric Pregnancies to Midlife Motherhood (Paola Catenaccio)
  • Section 4 Middle Age
  • Representations of Middle Age. A Corpus Linguistic Study of The New York Times’s Letters to the Editor (1990–2019) (Giulia Rovelli)
  • Section 5 Old Age and Technology
  • Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) for Communications with Seniors and Non-Hearing Users at Public Spaces: Speech-To-Text Technology for Live Subtitling and Accessibility (Alessandro Gregori)
  • Inspecting Linguistic Features in Interaction Transcripts of Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease through Interpretable Machine Learning (Barbara Berti)
  • Section 6 Old Age, Disease and Care
  • ‘Home-Likeness’ in English and Italian Care Homes’ Websites: From Countering Stereotypes to Wading through the COVID-19 Pandemic (Carlotta Fiammenghi)
  • Dignity and Independence of Older Adults in the Healthcare Decision-Making Process: Insights from the Italian Legal Framework (Federico Gustavo Pizzetti)
  • Series Index

Virpi Ylänne, Kim Grego and Alessandra Vicentini

Discourses of Ages: Representations and Reflections

This volume is a collection of studies dealing with age or, rather, ages, mainly from a linguistic viewpoint, but also accommodating inputs from other disciplinary perspectives. In detail, it aims to focus on the linguistic, social, economic and ethical aspects of social groups defined in terms of age – which clearly includes seniors but, as shall be seen, is not limited to that. It thus offers a comparison of different age-related communication strategies, in order to share knowledge about them.

Ageing itself can be approached from different perspectives. There is a strong biological basis for our chronological age, yet ‘the ageing process cannot be adequately explained solely in biological and medical terms but is an interactive process involving social and cultural factors’ (Featherstone and Hepworth 2005: 355). Social and cultural factors include age stereotypes and societal assumptions of age groups and the lifespan, as well as institutional and legal frameworks and practices. These all have an important linguistic dimension. Technological advances in modern society have had an enormous impact on the daily lives of people of all ages, including in medical and care contexts. Age groups themselves are becoming increasingly heterogeneous and their boundaries more blurred.

Indeed, while globalization phenomena and portable technology seem to be levelling out the world’s population with a somewhat democratizing effect, we are concurrently witnessing trends of social re-grouping according to variously defined criteria, from nationalisms to localisms, from interest groups supporting or protesting specific causes (e.g. ecology and vaccines), to even smaller groups based on common interests and objectives among the most disparate (Appadurai 1996 and 2006; Anderson-Levitt 2003; Flesher-Fominaya 2014).

←11 | 12→Age groups are significant not only at the social level but also, for example, in terms of business, with specific products and services increasingly tailored to reach more specific ages (Yoon 1997; Yates and Patalano 1999; Lambert-Pandraud and Laurent 2010; Dobbs, Remes and Woetzel 2016; Vicentini 2017; Arensberg 2018). In the linguistics field, sociolinguists have been addressing this theme for decades now, with approaches drawing upon the social constructivist tradition, which highlights the importance of language in understanding society and social categories, hence promoting the study of language attitudes, beliefs and reactions about the use of language (on seniors, see, e.g., Coupland and Jaworski 1997: 70–72), also related to the theme of identity (Fairclough 1995; Irwin 2010: 100) and migration (Britain and Trudgill 1999; Extra and Verhoeven 2011; Beacco et al. 2017).

Changing spaces and settings, new technologies and global phenomena like the recent COVID-19 pandemic have all been demonstrated to exert a substantial influence on how different ages and age groups are perceived, seen and constructed. For example, the dependence narrative around older adults and young children has shifted considerably over the last few decades as a result of medical advancements, new pedagogical perspectives and extraordinary technology innovations. This has ensured healthier and longer lives and provided older adults various means of identifying as younger in terms of lifestyles, and also blurred the boundaries of childhood and adulthood in various ways. However, the recent and ongoing global crisis has dramatically altered the conditions and expectations of age-specific groups, creating new existential paradigms and ethical dilemmas that will need to be handled by the institutions (Dubois et al. 2022).

Within such a complex and multi-layered context, the chapters of this book provide attempts at showcasing realities connected with language, ages and, in general, the discourses surrounding them. Specifically, the volume starts off with Virpi Ylänne providing a thorough overview of ageism in intergenerational talk and in media representations. Taking us through an analysis of ageist stereotypes, both positive and negative, in familial encounters, in UK magazine advertisements spanning the period of 1999–2016 and in British news on the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Ylänne highlights how even positive categorisations of older adults run the risk of being based on oversimplifications and of ←12 | 13→promoting ‘agelessness’ as the ultimate achievement to be obtained by seniors. On a different and perhaps lighter – yet no less relevant – note, Judith Lejeck discursively reviews a selection of birthday cards for five to 100 years of age by major US manufacturers, to reveal how such products, supposedly designed to celebrate people entering various stages of their lives, actually contain ageist inputs, sometimes openly negative in their stance, other times masked as neutral messages. The analysis demonstrates the continued presence of ageism in society, here reflected in the use of enduring age stereotypes.

Young age is the domain explored by Maria Cristina Paganoni, who discusses Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s environmentalist discourse in the light of the ageist positions adopted by her critics. Using argumentation theory integrated with discourse analysis, Paganoni analyses the ‘young vs old’ argument in terms of accountability, where the latter term indicates both the young person’s questioned accountability and the older generation being held accountable by today’s youth for the environmental state in which we currently lie. The complexities of climate crisis discourse are seen to also include discourses of generational divide, at times amplified by the media.

Turning to how age and being female can contribute to defining further constructions and stereotypes, Francesca Cappellini investigates a corpus-based study on African women and Ebola. What may appear as a neutral topic (both males and females are equally affected by the potentially deadly virus) is actually connoted from an age-related viewpoint, since pregnant women present with more complications, and the fertility span in sub-Saharan regions is comprised between fifteen and forty-four years of age. The Critical Discourse Analysis of the specialised medical texts on Ebola collected by Cappellini reveals instances of both ageism and sexism in the representation of the patients. Being a mother is definitely a token of female identity: from young African to older Caucasian mothers, Paola Catenaccio addresses the historically recent phenomenon of geriatric pregnancies – those sought or occurring in middle age. Opinions as to what a ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ pregnancy is may heavily rely on age-related stereotypes, in addition to – but often irrespective of – physiological and medical constraints. Catenaccio thus reports on the discursive identity constructions of first-time older mothers, both in scientific literature and, perhaps more interestingly, in these ←13 | 14→women’s own self accounts, suggesting that modifying labels may contribute to negotiating the social dimension of the phenomenon.

Also on the so-called ‘middle age’ – another label that is socially as much as it is medically debated in current times – Giulia Rovelli investigates a corpus of New York Times’ letters-to-the-editor (1990–2019), which uncover how this life period is discursively represented by both middle-agers themselves and by society at large, in addition to highlighting the changes that have occurred in the thirty years considered. Interesting remarks are thus made on the boundaries of middle age, its relationship with old age, and the notion of crisis in personal and professional contexts – seen especially as applied to ‘baby boomers’: themes and stereotypes are sometimes shared with older adults’ representations, as is the intrinsic complexity of defining this life stage.

Unquestionably, when discussing ages, old age remains the main recipient of discriminatory behaviours, actions and language. It is thus no surprise that the majority of studies on ageism should concentrate on the later years of one’s existence, and this volume is no exception. One of the themes dealt with here is the relationship between old age and technology. Alessandro Gregori adds yet another layer of complexity by exploring how Automatic Speech Recognition and Neural Machine Translation (ASR & NMT) can be employed to communicate with older adults and non-hearing users. The association between the two social groups is easily understood, in that hearing loss also commonly occurs in seniors. For this very reason, the same kind of stigma may be shared by impaired and older people – a recurring issue in ageism aimed at older adults. After analysing a corpus of video and audio files of climate-change speeches given at public supranational institutions and the respective subtitles, both automatically and manually generated, Gregori found that the 90 per cent accuracy achieved by ASR & NMT can contribute to enabling socially weaker groups such as seniors and non-hearing people by enhancing their accessibility to the public debate. Berti Barbara also discusses transcripts, though in respect to interactions with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) patients. In this case, machine learning applications run on such texts can be of use to identify linguistic features of seniors suffering from dementia, as opposed to ones who do not. In detail, an edited version of the English-language Pitt Corpus was explored for this purpose, and the Complement Naïve Bayes classifier ←14 | 15→was employed as the working algorithm. Notwithstanding the quantitative and qualitative limits in the dataset considered, the algorithm trained to identify linguistic traits relatable to AD returned significantly accurate results, which represents a hope for possible breakthroughs in the early detection of signs of dementia in older people. This and the previous study prove the relevance that technology can and should have in studies of ageing and language.

Ageing, as we all know, often carries with it a number of physical and mental impairments that progressively manifest themselves over time. The relationship between ageing, disease and care is thus another theme that necessarily emerges when focusing on old age. Carlotta Fiammenghi reports on the language used in the websites of English and Italian care homes. In particular, the concept of ‘home-likeness’ – or how such an institution is discursively constructed to appear like a home – is explored. The analysis returns home-likeness as a culture-bound notion, which tends to focus on the personal history of residents in the English home under consideration, and on the features of the territory hosting the building in the Italian one. Additionally, the crisis brought forth by the recent COVID-19 pandemic forced care homes to adjust their self-representation, insisting on the one hand on maintaining their home-like constructed identities while, on the other, admitting to the impossibility of human presence as in a traditional home.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (March)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 280 pp., 14 fig. b/w, 24 tables.

Biographical notes

Kim S. Grego (Volume editor) Alessandra Vicentini (Volume editor) Virpi Ylänne (Volume editor)

Kim Grego is Associate Professor of English Language and Translation at the University of Milan, Italy, where she teaches English Language and Linguistics. Her interests include Translation Studies, ESP (scientific, medical and political discourse), Critical Genre Analysis and Critical Discourse Studies applied to ethically debatable issues. Alessandra Vicentini is Associate Professor of English Language and Translation at the University of Insubria, Italy, where she teaches English Linguistics. Her research interests include ESP (medicine & healthcare and news discourse), Sociolinguistics, Critical Discourse and Genre Analysis. Virpi Ylänne is a Reader in Language and Communication at Cardiff University, Wales, UK. She has published widely on media representations of older adults, and ageing and identity. Her other research interests include institutional discourse and social interaction.


Title: Age-Specific Issues. Language, Spaces, Technologies
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