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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: August 2013

10 - Language and identity: individual, social, national


At once, with contemptuous perversity, Mr Vladimir changed the language, and began to speak idiomatic English without the slightest trace of a foreign accent.

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent

One-dimensional social identities are not what they used to be…We all make choices about how seriously we take such identities, and many of us make choices about the identities themselves.

Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be

Outline of the chapter

Language serves instrumental and symbolic purposes. Among the latter, the manifestation of identity sticks out as a topic that has inspired a great deal of sociolinguistic research. Departing from the notion of ‘native speaker’, understood as the speaker of one’s proper, inborn language, this chapter investigates the link between language and identity. It discusses various kinds of identity – individual, ethnic, social and national – introducing major theoretical approaches to sociolinguistic identity research. On the basis of the Welsh language and its function for Welsh identity, the chapter argues that ethnolinguistic identity is variably emphasized by different speech communities, often playing a more important role for minority groups existing in the shadow of an overbearing neighbour than for speech communities whose language is not at risk of being replaced. It furthermore demonstrates that the language–identity link, rather than being an inalterable fixture, is historically contingent and can be either foregrounded or downplayed. The problem of shifting and multiple identities is discussed, and it is explained that identity research has moved from a predetermined concept to a more dynamic notion of identity as flexible and negotiable on both the group and individual level.

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Further reading
Appiah, A. K. and Gates, H. L. (eds.) 1995. Identities. University of Chicago Press.
Fuller, Janet M. 2007. Language choice as a means of shaping identity. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 17(1): 105–29.
Ige, Busayo. 2010. Identity and language choice: ‘We equals I’. Journal of Pragmatics 42(11): 3047–54.
Lauring, Jakob. 2008. Rethinking Social Identity Theory in international encounters: language use as a negotiated object for identity making. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management 8(3): 343–61.
Le Page, R. B. and Andrée, Tabouret-Keller. 1985. Acts of Identity: Creole-Based Approaches to Language and Ethnicity. Cambridge University Press.
Mendoza-Denton, Norma. 2002. Language and identity. In Chambers, J. K., Trudgill, Peter and Schilling-Estes, Natalie (eds.), The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Oxford: Blackwell, 475–99.
Ryan, Ellen Bouchard. 1979. Why do low-prestige language varieties persist? In Giles, H. and St Clair, R. N. (eds.), Language and Social Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell, 145–58.