Language and Identity

In communication, there are many ways that people can express elements of their identity. There are also many aspects to a person's life that define their identity. Language can both give someone identity and allows them to share the aspects of it, such as their age, gender or where they live. We will look at the relationship between language and identity, how this relates to sociolinguistic study, and some examples of identity in language use.

Language and Identity Language and Identity

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Table of contents

    The relationship between Language and identity

    Language and social identity are closely intertwined. The language(s) we speak and the way we use language can reflect and shape our social identities, which are the various ways in which we identify ourselves in relation to others.

    A person's identity can be influenced by different factors (parents, peers and region) at different ages. These factors can influence a person’s language use.

    • During childhood, a person’s language will mirror their parents’ as they are who they'll interact with the most.

    • When speakers reach secondary school, they may start to adopt their peers' language features due to socialising with more social groups.

    • A person’s regional identity will be shown through their use of a regional accent. This could change to take on features of different regions, for example, if someone moves to a different area for a significant length of time.

    Language and identity in sociolinguistics

    A person's language is influenced by their social groups, leading us to the field of sociolinguistics.

    Sociolinguistics is the study of how social factors such as age and gender can affect language use. This takes into account how someone speaks and the judgements and perceptions associated with language features.

    The social factors that can affect a person's language and identity include:

    • Region (location)

    • Gender

    • Age

    • Occupation

    • Class

    • Ethnicity

    Language and Identity, fisherman, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Language use is affected by factors such as age, religion, occupation, cultural background, and others!

    The use of different language features can imply a sense of belonging to different social groups. These group-specific features are used to portray a certain identity to the world. We call language use that shows belonging to a certain social groups sociolects.

    Sociolect is a combination of the terms 'social' and 'dialect'. The term refers to language use that is specific to people belonging to the same social group and share the same social factors, such as class, age, or occupation.

    For example, teenagers may use slang terms such as 'GOAT' (greatest of all time), 'lit' (amazing/brilliant), or 'V' (very) so that they can differentiate themselves from adults and portray their age as a focal point of their identity.

    A speaker can also show individual identity by using their idiolect.

    Idiolect refers to the specific way an individual speaks. Idiolects have language features from different social groups, creating a unique mix of features.

    Language and identity: examples

    Let's look at some examples of how identity is shown in language relating to two of the main social factors: region and class.

    Region

    A real-life example of how region (geographical location) can impact language and be used as a marker for identity can be seen in music. Some singers will choose to perform in a standard British or American accent to appeal to a larger audience, even though that's not their original accent.

    However, some singers choose to retain their regional accents when singing. This allows them to show their region as part of their identity.

    The Proclaimers (who sang 500 Miles) and Twin Atlantic (who sang Heart and soul) both sing with their Scottish accents, showing us that they value their home region as part of their identity and want to share it with their audience.

    Singers like these go against the norm of singers opting to sing in a standardised accent. Think of Adele - she has a strong cockney accent when she's speaking but swaps to a standard American accent when she sings.

    Class

    As a general rule regarding class and language, we can state that people with a higher class are more likely to speak with Received Pronunciation (RP); this is because RP has historically been the accent used and taught in educational institutes.

    An example of this can be seen in the speech of the Queen. She is of the upper class and always uses Received Pronunciation. By doing this, she is showing the upper-class aspect of her identity through her language.

    Now that we understand the influence identity has on someone's language, we can look at how identity applies to sociolinguistic theories.

    Language and identity, and sociolinguistic theory

    There are many theories which look at the link between language use and identity and if we went through all of them we'd be here all week! So, in this article, we'll go through four of the main social groups (region, gender, age, and class) and look at one theory for each.

    Theorists include:

    • Carmen Llamas
    • George Keith and John Shuttleworth
    • Gary Ives
    • Michael Nelson

    We'll also look at two other theories that apply more to general language use than to particular social groups.

    Theories related to regions

    Theories to regional identities include Carmen Llamas's theory.

    In 1968, Middlesbrough changed from being part of Yorkshire to being part of the Teesside County Borough. This meant that the Middlesbrough accent changed from having primarily Yorkshire accent and dialect features to then having features typical of the North East.

    Linguist Carmen Llamas carried out a study in 2000 into the linguistic variation in Middlesbrough and found the following:

    • Older people used more Yorkshire accent features.

    • Younger people used more North-East features.

    • There is a strong hostility towards being labelled a 'geordie'.

    • The people of Middlesbrough wished to be identified as North-East or Middlesbrough through their accent.1

    Language and identity Image of women talking about dialects StudySmarterFig. 2 - People from different regions will speak in different accents.

    Gender

    George Keith and John Shuttleworth explored theories related to gender and identity.

    In 1999, linguists Keith and Shuttleworth carried out a series of conversation analyses of men's and women's speech.

    Their findings concluded that there are typical speech characteristics for each gender, shown in the table below:

    WomenMen
    • Talk too much
    • More polite
    • Hesitant
    • Complain or nag
    • Ask questions
    • Support each other
    • More cooperative
    • Swear more
    • Avoid emotions
    • Insult each other
    • Competitive in conversation
    • Dominate conversation
    • Speak with authority
    • Give more commands
    • Interrupt more
    • Have demeaning names for women
    • Talk about women and machines in the same way
    • Talk about sports

    Keith and Shuttleworth's findings align with typical gender stereotypes. People may alter how they speak to avoid language that encourages stereotypical judgements based on gender.2

    Age

    Linguist Gary Ives interviewed a group of teenagers in West Yorkshire to document the features of adolescent language use. He found recurring patterns in the speech of the teens.

    These were:

    • Their speech is linked by an informal register.

    • The most common topic of conversation is relationships.

    • Taboo language is part of the teen vernacular.

    • Dialect is often used when speaking.

    • Slang is common.

    • Informal lexical choices are often linked by common themes or topics.3

    Teenagers may use some or all of these features to place themselves in the group identity of ‘teenager.’ Teenagers who don’t want to be defined by the stereotype of ‘teenager’ will often choose not to use these features in their language.

    Occupation

    Linguist Michael Nelson carried out a study in 2000 into the concept of business lexis. He concluded that people at work use language in a semantic field of business, for example:

    • business

    • people

    • companies

    • institutions

    • money

    • time

    • technology

    Language and Identity, business jargon, StudySmarterFig. 3 - These are some words which might fit into the "business" lexical field, for example.

    He also found that certain words or topics were not used, for example:

    • weekends

    • personal issues

    • family

    • society

    • house and home

    • hobbies

    Nelson's theory can be linked to identity by looking at a person's workplace language.

    When at work, speakers may:

    • Use Nelson’s business lexis to create a professional identity and keep their home identity private, or;

    • Deviate from Nelson’s business lexis and use more of their idiolect features to create a more personable and approachable identity.4

    Now that we've looked at identity and sociolinguistic theories, let's have a look at a theory that shows how people change their language to show how they don't belong to certain social groups.

    Language and identity: other theories

    Some of the other theorists associated with language, identity, and society include Michael Halliday and Polari.

    Michael Halliday's anti-language

    Anti-language is the language of an anti-society that exists as an alternative to 'normal' society. Anti-language is linked to identity as it is used when a group of people seek a covert identity.

    A covert identity is a secret identity. The word covert refers to something that is hidden.

    After research into anti-languages and their uses, Halliday found that:

    • Anti-languages are generally shown through a specific lexicon.

    • They share the same grammar as the main society but have a different vocabulary.

    • Users of anti-languages can communicate meanings to each other that are inaccessible to a non-user.

    • Groups who use anti-language view it as fundamental to their identity.5

    The best way to understand the concept of anti-languages is to look at a real-life example.

    Polari: example of anti-language

    Polari is an example of an anti-language. Historically, it was used in the UK by gay men but has now mostly fallen out of use. The lexicon was derived from a variety of different sources including Cockney rhyming slang, backslang, Italian, USA airforce slang, and drug-user slang.

    Backslang is a form of anti-language where words are said as if they're spelt backwards.

    Examples of backslang are: "erif" (fire), "doog eno" (good one), and "delo" (old).

    This anti-language allowed gay men to communicate without being overheard. This was important at the time as it allowed them to share an aspect of their identity (being gay) that was illegal at the time.

    Some examples of Polari words are:

    • ajax (next to)
    • bevvy (drink)
    • bona (good)
    • naff (awful)
    • cod (awful)
    • dolly (pretty)
    • vada (to look)

    Language and Identity - Key Takeaways

    • A person's identity can be represented through their language use.
    • A person's identity is often influenced by the social groups they're in.
    • Social factors that can contribute to someone's identity are region, gender, age, occupation, class and ethnicity.
    • Some key theorists in language and identity include M. Halliday, G. Ives, C. Llamas, and M. Nelson.
    • Anti-language is used by groups of people who want an alternative to 'normal' society and seek a covert identity.

    References

    1. C. Llamas. Middlesbrough English: Convergent and divergent trends in s 'part of Britain with no identity. Leeds working papers in linguistics and phonetics. 2000
    2. G. Keith and J. Shuttleworth. Living Language. Hodder Education. 1999
    3. G. Ives, M. Giovanelli, J. Keen, R. Rana and R. Rudman. A/AS Level English Language for AQA Student Book. Cambridge University Press. 2015.
    4. M. Nelson. Corpus-based Study of the Lexis of Business English and Business English Teaching Materials. University of Manchester. 2000
    5. M. Halliday. Edited by: J. Webster. Language and Society Volume 10. Bloomsbury Publishing. 2009.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Identity

    How are language and identity connected?

    A person's identity can be influenced by different social factors, such as age, gender, class, ethnicity, and occupation. These social factors and can then influence an individual's language use. An individual can choose to express parts of their identity with language or also conceal parts of their identity with language. 

    How are language and identity related?

    A person's identity is determined by certain social factors such as gender, age and region. These factors can contribute to and affect language use.

    How does language affect identity?

    Language can be considered the carrier of culture and a way of showing belonging to particular social groups. We can change and adapt our language use to show others aspects of identities and how we identify ourselves.

    Why is language important to identity?

    Language is the way people can express aspects of their identity. For example using specific features to a social group shows your belonging to that group.

    Why is it important to be aware of the relationship between language and identity?

    relationship between language and social identity is complex and multifaceted. Language can reflect and shape social identity in a variety of ways, and understanding this relationship can provide important insights into the ways in which language is used in social interaction and communication. We study the relationship between language and identity in the field of sociolinguistics. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    In what year was Labov's Martha's Vineyard study?

    What three types of speech did Labov want to elicit during the interviews?

    In Labov's final data set, which three ethnic groups did he split people into?

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