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Using language to define one’s identity

Using language to define one’s identity

“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.

☘ To show our affiliation

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.

Tokyo vs. Osaka

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.

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.

United Nations

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.

☘ Other ways

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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