Using language to define one’s identity

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“Can you think of a context in which groups use language to define their identity?”

This was a question we were posed in the online linguistics course at Coursera (run by University of Leiden).

Immediate response: Yes, of course! We use language as identity.

Let me talk about this from an individual level.

We all use language—whether by the dialect we choose or the words we use—to show our affiliation with a particular identity, whether it’s to fit in or to indicate that we are different.

My cousin is originally from Tokyo, but moved as a high-schooler to Osaka, which has a distinct dialect. When I visited her, she would talk to me in the Tokyo speech as always—but I was struck how when her local friend called, she immediately switched to a convincing Osaka dialect (which, remember, she had only recently learned).

She explained to me that she learned the dialect quickly so as to fit in with her friends (identity = proud Osakans), and not to stick out like a foreigner (identity = Tokyo eastern snob).

Her switch was so startling that I remember it well, but we all do some version of it.

I use American slang to signal to other Americans that I’m native (to the Northeast anyway); but adjust my vowels a bit when talking to people from other countries, to indicate that I’m more “international” (perhaps hinting at global open-mindedness!) than a typical American.

When I worked for the UN, I made sure to scatter various acronyms and jargon into my speech and writing, to make sure I sounded professional and knowledgeable.

And I remember a college summer where I was hanging out with a bunch of completely bilingual Japanese-American students, and we all talked a mishmash of Japanese and English, just to show that we were not your typical Japanese and that we were so international.

Other ways that language might be used to express identity:

  • Professionals use jargon to show that they are competent and knowledgeable. (UN staff are notorious for this, and so is the Philippines; I once listed all the acronyms I came to use while working for UNICEF Philippines, and it was something like 150…)
  • Teenagers everywhere show their cool with their unique abbreviations and slang (and make sure to prevent adults from understanding what they’re talking about!).
  • People use local languages or dialects to make it clear that they are Javanese or Osakan or Catalan, etc., as distinct from the nationally-promoted identity of Indonesian or Japanese or Spanish.
  • Those from a social/economic/cultural/intellectual elite might use words to signal to others that they are of that class, and therefore due appropriate treatment.
  • Other groups that were mentioned which might use specific jargon/lingo to show their cultural identities included LGBTQ communities, fan fiction writers/lovers, and fans of specific musicians/musical genres.

What are ways that you use language to express your identity?

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