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Language and cultural identity


In 1915, Edmond Laforest, a prominent Haitian writer, stood upon a bridge, tied a French Larousse dictionary around his neck, and leapt to his death. This symbolic, if fatal, grand gesture dramatizes the relation of language and cultural identity. Henry Louis Gates, who recounts this story, adds 'While other black writers, before and after Laforest, have been drowned artistically by the weight of various modern languages, Laforest chose to make his death an emblem of this relation of overwhelming indenture.' ('Race', Writing, and Difference. University of Chicago Press 1985, page 13). This event will help us bring together several notions that have emerged in the previous chapters; the motivated, non-arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign, the link between a language and its legitimate discourse community, the symbolic capital associated with the use of a particular language or of a literate form of that language, in short the association of language with a person's sense of self. We explore in this chapter the complex relationship between language and what is currently called 'cultural identity'.


Cultural identity


It is widely believed that there is a natural connection between the language spoken by members of a social group and that group's identity. By their accent, their vocabulary, their discourse pat-terns, speakers identify themselves and are identified as members of this or that speech and discourse community. From this membership, they draw personal strength and pride, as well as a sense of social importance and historical continuity from using the same language as the group they belong to.

But how to define which group one belongs to? In isolated, homogeneous communities like the Trobrianders studied by Malinowski, one may still define group membership according to common cultural practices and daily face-to-face interactions, but in modern, historically complex, open societies it is much more difficult to define the boundaries of any particular social group and the linguistic and cultural identities of its members.

Take ethnicity for example. In their 1981 survey conducted among the highly mixed population of Belize (formerly British Honduras), Le Page and Tabouret-Keller found out that different people ascribed themselves to different ethnicities as either 'Spanish', 'Creole', 'Maya' or 'Belizean', according to which ethnic criterion they focused on physical features (hair and skin), general appearance, genetic descent, provenance, or nationality. Rarely was language used as an ethnically defining criterion. Interestingly, it was only under the threat of a Guatemalan takeover as soon as British rule would cease, that the sense of a Belizean national identity slowly started emerging from among the multiple ethnic ascriptions that people still give themselves to this day.

Group identity based on race would seem easier to define, and yet there are almost as many genetic differences, say, between members of the same White, or Black race as there are between the classically described human races, not to speak of the difficulty in some cases of ascertaining with 100 per cent exactitude a person's racial lineage. For example, in 1983 the South African Government changed the racial classification of 690 people: two-thirds of these, who had been Coloreds, became Whites, 71 who had been Blacks became Coloreds, and n Whites were redistributed among other racial groups! And, of course, there is no necessary correlation between a given racial characteristic and the use of a given language or variety of language.

Regional identity is equally contestable. As reported in the London Times of February 1984, when a Soviet book, Populations of the World, claimed that the population of France consisted of 'French, Alsatians, Flemings, Bretons, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans, Jews, Armenians, Gypsies and "others'", Georges Marchais, the French Communist leader, violently disagreed: 'For us', he said, 'every man and woman of French nationality is French. France is not a multinational state: it is one nation, the product of a long history ....'

One would think that national identity is a clear-cut either/or affair (either you are or you are not a citizen), but it is one thing, for example, to have a Turkish passport, another thing to ascribe to yourself a Turkish national identity if you were born, raised and educated, say, in Germany, are a native speaker of German, and happen to have Turkish parents.

Despite the entrenched belief in the one language = one culture equation, individuals assume several collective identities that are likely not only to change over time in dialogue with others, but are liable to be in conflict with one another. For example, an immigrant's sense of self, that was linked in his country of origin perhaps to his social class, his political views, or his economic status, becomes, in the new country, overwhelmingly linked to his national citizenship or his religion, for this is the identity that is imposed on him by others, who see in him now, for example, only a Turk or a Muslim. His own sense of self, or cultural identity, changes accordingly. Out of nostalgia for the 'old country', he may tend to become more Turkish than the Turks and entertain what Benedict Anderson has called 'long distance nationalism'. The Turkish he speaks may become with the passing of years somewhat different from the Turkish spoken today in the streets of Ankara; the community he used to belong to is now more an 'imagined community' than the actual present-day Turkey.


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