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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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6.1.1 Language and personal identity

Language and identity are tied together at many levels. In an article written in the first half of the twentieth century, the American linguist Edward Sapir discussed this relationship and foresaw much subsequent research on language and identity. As you read the following excerpt from this essay, try to identify the two levels at which language and identity are connected.

Language is a great force of socialisation, probably the greatest that exists. By this is meant not merely the obvious fact that significant social intercourse is hardly possible without language but that the mere fact of a common speech serves as a peculiarly potent symbol of the social solidarity of those who speak the language. ... [A]t the same time [language is] the most potent single known factor for the growth of individuality. The fundamental quality of one’s voice, the phonetic patterns of speech, the speed and relative smoothness of articulation, the length and build of the sentences, the character and range of the vocabulary ... the readiness with which words respond to the requirements of the social environment, in particular the suitability of one’s language to the language habits of the persons addressed – all these are so many complex indicators of the personality.

Sapir, 1970 (1933), pp. 15–16, 19

Sapir is telling us in this excerpt that language is an important means by which we establish collective identity and belonging and, at one and the same time, it is a powerful expression of our individuality. Now consider the following illustration of how much we infer about the identities of others from their use of language.

Imagine, if you will, a group of strangers waiting at a taxi stand. An empty taxi drives past without stopping, and the following remarks ensue:

  • A Outrageous.
  • B I say.
  • C F*ckin hell.

Quite likely, you have pictured in your mind what A, B and C look like. You can probably tell me something about how they are dressed, their background, what they do, what they are like, and whether you would like them or not.

(Joseph, 2004, p. 4)

The reason you are likely to have formed these surprisingly specific images of the three speakers above from such brief utterances lies in how we are socialised into language use. As we develop our linguistic competence throughout our lives from earliest childhood onwards, we learn to communicate in ways that are appropriate to the various groups with which we are associated. These groups may be as small and personal as a family unit or as large and relatively impersonal as a social class. Sociolinguists have shown that ways of communicating vary with a huge variety of social statuses, including gender, age, ethnicity, ‘race’, social class, profession and nationality, to name but a few.

Just as we make inferences about others’ identities from how they speak, we also use language to establish and project our own identities to others. Our identities have multiple facets, and we are all adept at communicating in ways that emphasise some aspects, or downplay or attempt to hide others, depending on context. That is, we can all speak in different registers, changing our manner of communicating (accent, choice of vocabulary, use of grammar, and so on) to suit the occasion. We do not normally speak to our best friend and our boss in the same way, nor use similar language at a funeral as at a football match.

Activity 15

Think about how you communicate in several different contexts, for example, with family, at work, in a single-sex group, in a committee meeting. How does your choice of vocabulary, grammar and speaking style vary? What influences the choices that you make? If you are fluent in more than one language, how do you go about deciding which language to use?