Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
Date: Wed, 13 Apr 2005 08:24:25 -0700 From: Simo Kalervo Maatta Subject: Language and Identity: National, Ethnic, Religious
AUTHOR: Joseph, John E. TITLE: Language and Identity SUBTITLE: National, Ethnic, Religious PUBLISHER: Palgrave MacMillan YEAR: 2004
Simo K. Määttä
This book explores the role of language in the formation and interpretation of national, ethnic, and religious identities, as well as the ways in which different sub-fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics in particular, have dealt with the topic. It argues that the consideration of identity should form part of any study of language; ultimately, the author contends, research on language and identity can bring a contribution to the "rehumanization" of linguistics (Afterword, p. 226 in particular).
The author starts with a short introduction (1-14) to the problem, i.e., the nature of identity, including an overview of related concepts, such as self, person, ethos, persona, subject, subjectivity, and identification. He strongly argues that identity can be understood as an entirely linguistic phenomenon (12).
Chapter Two (The Functions and Evolution of Language, 15-40) aims at showing that identity is indeed a fundamental feature and function of language. In addition, it argues that a theory of language taking interpretation, instead of communication and representation, as the primary function of language is one reconcilable with evolution. This requires the assumption of "a primordial language subject-cum-object reacting to the world around it," rather than "privileging (of) the active agency of the subject that is itself a historical product" (39). Indeed, according to Joseph, "linguistic identity is a category that blurs the distinction between the two traditional functions of language" (16). On the other hand, identity could be considered a subcategory of representation, although at the same time extending beyond it; finally, identity is defined "as the category (or set of categories) into which a person (or less often, an animal or object or abstraction) is read as belonging, expressible as or (in the case of a proper name) consisting of a noun phrase or adjective phrase" (40).
Through an overview of Malinowski's concept of phatic function and a short exploration of the performative function of the language, Joseph concludes that the isolation of language from its speakers and interpreters and the context distantiates us from any "essential truth about language." (24). The interpretative function of language, on the other hand, is "evolutionary deepest" (29). Thus, "sociolinguistics, the study of the audible and visible, rather than deductive and imaginary, the study of the evolutionarily continuous and viable," is closest to reality -- the subject of the book is "people speaking" (36).
Chapter Three (Approaching Identity in Traditional Linguistic Analysis, 41- 66) starts with the exploration of classical and Romantic views of language, nation, culture, and the individual and concentrates on the contributions of those interested in the "social in language," such as Voloshinov, Saussure, Jespersen, Sapir, Firth, Halliday, Brown & Gilman, and Labov. The chapter concludes with a short overview of research on language and gender, Network Theory, communities of practice, and language ideologies.
Chapter Four (Integrating Perspectives from Adjacent Disciplines, 67-91) studies the contribution of fields of inquiry other than linguistics to the examination of linguistic identity, including the work of scholars such as Goffman, Bernstein, Foucault, Bourdieu, Gumperz, and Hymes. The chapter also explores research done on attitudes and accommodation, as well as Social Identity Theory and self-categorization. The end of the chapter (83-91), however, is devoted to a debate about the benefits and defects of essentialism, an epistemological framework in which categories such as race, gender, or class are taken as given, and constructionism, more interested in identity as a process through which categories are constructed. "(W)hatever the 'primary function of speech' may be, the primary function of language is certainly the interpretation of what others say to us" (87), the author reiterates; while his theoretical viewpoint appears to be closest to constructionism, he notes that discourse on essentialism on the part of constructionists, ironically, essentializes history (90). On the other hand, essentialism should not be completely discarded when language and identity are studied: "constructing an identity is in fact constructing and essence" (ibid.).
Indeed, the second half of Joseph's book aims at exploring the social construction of three "particularly powerful" 'essentialized' identities (90), i.e., national, ethnic, and religious. First, the author provides on overview of certain theories of national identity (Chapter Five: Language in National Identities, 92-131); theories of ethnic and religious identities are examined in Chapter Seven (Language in Ethnic/Racial and Religious/Sectarian Identities, 162-93). Chapters Six and Eight are case studies: The New Quasi-Nation of Hong Kong (132-61) and Christian and Muslim Identities in Lebanon (194-223).
Chapter Five includes a discussion of the nature of national identities and the starting moment of nationalism. Subsequently, the author analyzes the contributions of Dante, Nebrija, Valdés, Du Bellay, Fichte, Renan, Kadourie, Gellner, Anderson, Billig, Hobsbawm, and Silverstein to the theory of linguistic nationalism, as well as recent research on developments on different continents. Chapter Six, the case study of Hong Kong, provides a short political and linguistic history and analyzes samples of written Hong Kong English, an entity recognized by linguists but denied by most of its speakers. The analysis concentrates on features in which Hong Kong English is different from standard English and examines the interlanguage features which can explain them. One of the main points is to dismantle the myth of declining English in Hong Kong: the fact that English spoken in Hong Kong might appear as deteriorating is due to the fact that a larger population is nowadays educated in English, although not as thoroughly as in the past, as well as the fact that a distinctive Hong Kong English is indeed developing. According to the author, Hong Kong provides a good example of linguistic identity construction, the outcome of which, including the development of a discreet Hong Kong English and identity, is uncertain.
Chapter Seven discusses ethnic, racial, sectarian, and religious identities, concentrating on the process of identity construction rather than the product thereof. A key concept is that of a shared habitus: "not every community of practice will manifest itself in a linguistic identity" (167); rather, "we can expect a community of practice to manifest a linguistic identity in just those cases where the practices around which the community is formed enter into the habitus of the individual community members. This happens most powerfully when the individuals grow up performing the practices as part of their everyday routine" (167-8). Ethnic and racial identity claims are particularly powerful, the author claims: even the Holocaust could be possible only after a racial/ethnic difference and a Jewish linguistic identity were constructed, although anti-Semitism as such had been present for a long time (172). Personal names, on the other hand, function as a "text" for ethnic and religious identity: individual identities "start with a personal name" (176). At this point, the author uses personal narratives taken from South-East Asian students (177-81).
The last part of Chapter Seven (181-93), however, is dedicated to the discussion of globalization, including language spread and loss and identity leveling. The languages and identities under threat, Joseph argues, are ethnic rather than national (181); they can also be religious: "because the spread of English is bound up with a 'modernity' widely seen as eschewing traditional beliefs in favour of a faith in technology" (182). These arguments appear to provide a rationale for the inclusion of globalization debate in this chapter. Globalization is not a new phenomenon; in addition, "it means so many things to so many people that it ultimately may not mean anything at all" (188). Furthermore, discourse on globalization tends to fail to notice that there is also a tendency towards more diversity within English (191). Indeed, there are forces which impede linguistic homogenization: "the imperatives of individual linguistic identity, which demands variation and prefers comprehension, and those of nation/ethnic/religious linguistic identity" (191). Besides, trade requires incomprehension, a quality without which "human societies would never have developed or survived" (192) -- perhaps this somewhat surprising argument was proposed because so much of the globalization debate centers on global economy and trade.
Chapter Eight analyzes the role of language in the development of Christian and Muslim identities in Lebanon. Alongside an overview of history, history of language, and cultural history, the author concentrates on the distribution of bi- and tri-lingualism involving English or French among different religious groups. These analyzes are supported by the results of fascinating sociolinguistic opinion polls and surveys and a thorough historical analysis. Somewhat oddly, however, the bulk of the latter part of the chapter is dedicated to Renan's relation with Lebanon, including biographical interpretation aimed at deciphering the construction of his identity and the influence thereof on his theory of linguistic nationalism. The chapter ends with the discussion of the identity of the Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf.
Language and Identity is a significant contribution not only to the theory of linguistic identity but to the theory of language as a whole, sociolinguistics and disourse analysis in particular. It is highly recommended reading for those interested in the linguistic situation in Lebanon and in Hong Kong, as well as those studying the connections between religion, ethnicity, and language and those fascinated by global English.
There are numerous interesting, new ideas in the book. For example, the possibility of identity being an entirely linguistic construction and phenomenon, as the author suggests, is an intriguing and thought-provoking insight. Another particularly fascinating argument is that of fictional characters appearing as more real than real people because their identities are contained (4) -- extended to, e.g., national identities, such an idea could help us understand better the power of ideologies such as nationalism. Among other main arguments of the book, one worth of special mention is that of over-reading, by which the author describes the fact that we "read an identity onto the people whose words we hear and read, "although "(T)here us no logical reason why linguistic patterns must reflect other attributes of the person who displays them" (38-9). The issue of interpretation and the methodology of its observation is indeed intriguing; as the author rightly points out, "production can be observed directly, understanding only indirectly" (30). However, the fact that much of the analysis of actual data in this book consists of the interpretation of produced written texts rather than the observation or interpretation of their interpretation shows how difficult it is to separate production from interpretation. It is also somewhat difficult to understand the evolutionary basis of interpretation, e.g., when considering the interpretation of written texts. Indeed, is it absolutely necessary to know what the primary function of language is and. Moreover, why should there be only one?
The book's title is perhaps too ambitious, possibly even misleading: national, ethnic, and religious aspects of language and identity is a very vast topic for a monograph. In fact, religious and ethnic identities receive much less attention than national ones; the fact that theory, data, and personal narratives are not always presented in a logical order might be due to the problematic scope of the topic.
Furthermore, the theoretical basis for the "social constructionist" approach remains somewhat reduced, especially considering that, indeed, rather than people speaking, the arguments are based mostly on written texts and entire discourses. A more detailed inquiry of, e.g., performative aspects of identity formation might have been useful; such an inquiry could provide tools for overcoming the problem of the explanatory value and authority of particular data. This problem, I argue, is one of the biggest problems of macro-sociolinguistic research and discourse analysis using categories of interpretation and analysis of "autonomous" linguistics -- therefore, to a large extent, sharing its ideas of the nature of language -- while, at the same time, dealing with concepts more or less incompatible with the notions of language thereof, such as ideology, gender, or the nation.
Finally, the critique of "autonomous" or "traditional" linguistics, scattered throughout the book, and the claims of sociolinguistics being closer to allegedly biological or evolutionary basis of language, are somewhat odd; indeed, if globalization means so many things that it may mean nothing at all, could we not argue the same for "language" and "linguistics" as well, to name but a few contested concepts?
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Simo K. Määttä earned his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. His research interests include language ideologies, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, and translation studies.