In recent decades, the discourse of how one’s sense of self-identity affects his or her existential mode became strongly associated with the methodological framework of a linguistic anthropology. Partially, this can be explained by the fact that, as of today, there is a tendency among more and more cultural scientists, to refer to the concept of language in terms of an identity-forming tool.
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In turn, this implies that the qualitative aspects of a linguistic communication are being concerned with how forms define the actual semiotic content, and not vice versa (Agar 1994). As Leavitt (2011, p. 61) noted, “The key difference among languages lies less in what they allow you to say – any language will allow you to say anything you want – than in what a given language obliges you to refer to”.
In its turn, this implies that there is indeed a rationale in referring to one’s language, as such that cannot be quite separated from the concerned individual’s sense of self-identity. In my paper, I will aim to explore the validity of this suggestion at length.
The foremost challenge of an intercultural communication is the fact that culturally diverse language-carriers, which indulge in it, often experience a hard time, while striving to make sense out of syntactic peculiarities of how phrases in foreign languages are being presented to them. This can be explained by the fact that the syntactic subtleties of a spoken phrase reflect the innermost workings of the speaker’s unconscious psyche, which suggests that languages can indeed be categorized as ‘primitive’, on the one hand, and ‘advanced’, on the other.
The validity of this statement can be explored to the well-documented phenomenon of the primitive tribesmen’s tendency to refer to themselves in the third person – ‘Mamba will go hunting and Mamba will bring his family some meat’. Yet, only few people seem to realize the fact that this cannot be explained solely by these tribesmen’s failure to get a good grip English language.
Apparently, the very specifics of the native people’s ‘brain wiring’ naturally predispose them towards referring to themselves in such a manner.
In his book, Bruhl (1928, p. 120) was able to explain the earlier mentioned linguistic phenomenon, “Nature appears in their (natives’) collective representations not as a system of objects and phenomena governed by fixed laws… but as a moving assemblage or totality of mystic actions and reactions, within which individual does not subjectualize but objectualize itself”.
In its turn, this explains why many people of the non-Western cultural background (especially those that reside in remote areas) tend to perceive life-challenges through the lenses of a utilitarian practicality, with their ability to define a dialectical relationship between causes and effects being somewhat undermined.
While in the field, Bruhl conducted an experiment – he presented the residents of a remote village in the South East Asia with the task of identifying the difference between the words: a log, a hammer, a nail and a handsaw.
As it appeared, villages were experiencing a hard time, while addressing this utterly simple cognitive task. This is because, in the eyes of these people, all of the earlier mentioned objects where equally useful, which is why there could not be any qualitative difference between them.
Worf (1956) explored the hypothesis that some languages reflect the workings of an essentially pre-logical (or holistic) mindset, in relation to the language of Hopi (native) tribesmen. According to the data, obtained during the course of his filed-study, in Hopi language there are no linguistic means to emphasize the time’s continuity, which is why they count days in a much different manner, as compared to what it is being the case with Westerners.
As the author pointed out, “ (In Hopi language) Such an expression as ‘ten days’ is not used. The equivalent statement is an operational one that reaches one day by a suitable count. ‘They stayed ten days’ becomes ‘they stayed until the eleventh day’ or ‘they left after the tenth day’”. (p.140).
What it means is that, contrary to what the proponents of culturally-relativist linguistics suggest, the syntactic particulars of a specific language are being thoroughly consistent with how its speakers assess the significance of the surrounding reality. This, of course, implies that an individual’s identity is indeed bound up with his or her language in a rather inseparable manner.
The legitimacy of this statement can be further illustrated in relation to what accounts for the qualitative difference, between how the semiotic meaning is being conveyed in Western and Oriental languages. For example, when a typical Western mother tries to familiarize its child with the notion of a ‘car’, she would be more likely to describe a car, as something with innately defined characteristics: ‘Look at this car – it has four wheels, it is red and shiny’.
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Oriental mother, on the other hand, would be more likely to introduce its child to the notion of a ‘car’ by emphasizing the car’s contextual characteristics: ‘Look at this car – it allows passengers to enjoy fast and comfortable ride’ (Masuda et al. 2008). The reason why it is being the case is apparent – unlike Westerners, endowed with the ‘Faustian’ mentality, Orientals (endowed with the ‘Apollonian’ mentality), tend to perceive the emanations of the surrounding reality not analytically, but rather contextually.
According to Bower (2000, p. 57), “In a variety of reasoning tasks, East Asians take a ‘holistic’ approach. They make little use of categories and formal logic and instead focus on relations among objects and the context in which they interact”. In other words, one’s language can be referred as such that provides us with an in-depth insight into the innermost specifics of his or her ‘brain wiring’, which happened to be so much more biologically then environmentally predetermined.
The full legitimacy of what has been said earlier can also be explored in regards to the popularity of the comic character of Ali G (Sasha Cohen) on British television, who was able to attain a public prominence by the mean of exposing viewers to his self-adopted identity of a Creole-speaking and gangsta-lifestyle-practicing Londoner.
The popularity of this character can be well explained in regards to the fact that one’s language does in fact reflect the deep-seated aspects of his or her individuality. As Sebba (2007, p. 362) pointed out, “Language is central to the ‘Ali G’ phenomenon. ‘Ali G’s’ language is a blend of non-standard Southern British English with grammatical, phonological and lexical features derived from Jamaican Creole”.
Apparently, it is specifically Cohen’s ability to take a practical advantage of his awareness of the fact that the Creolized British cannot be adequately utilized, as a channel for conveying urban-based (intellectually advanced) semantic messages, which allowed this actor to ensure the comic appeal of his character. It appears that Ali G succeeded in mimicking the tendency among many ethnically diverse people in Britain, to intentionally simplify the syntactic conventions of English language.
This is the reason why in his ‘interviews’, Ali G always refers to himself in the third person, “Me was bored ‘cos me had to do the same year for four years; they did’nt know me was dyslexical, and lots of people have told me that me have got the brain of a brain-scientist if me only been to school and not fallen behind so” (Howells 2006, p. 160).
The actual reason why viewers are being amused, while exposed to this character on TV, is that despite that fact that he poses, as an individual endowed with the strong sense of self-identity, his act is in fact highly stereotypical.
This is because the very assumption that a particular person is being endowed with the strongly defined sense of an existential identity, presupposes his or her ability to mentally separate itself from the surrounding reality. In its turn, such one’s ability cannot be discussed outside of what accounts for the concerned individual’s rate of IQ – the higher is this rate, the more advanced (abstract) are the linguistic forms/idioms he or she uses, while communicating with others, and vice versa (Lynn & Vanhanen 2002).
This, of course, once again confirms the full validity of the suggestion that it is not only that the notions of language and identity are closely related, but also that they in fact derive out of each other rather organically.
Because the specifics of one’s position in life (which cannot be discussed outside of what account for the linguistic aspects of the concerned individual’s sense of self-identity) define his or her chances of attaining a social prominence, we can well evaluate the extent of just about anyone’s societal value, in relation to the syntactic characteristics of the person’s language.
In other words, the less a particular person is being capable of acting as the society’s productive member (in the Western sense of this word), the more his or her language would be reflective of the following:
- Absence of covert categorization – in primitive languages, there are no contextual semantics within spoken sentences. This is the reason why the representational semiotics of these languages are necessarily literal.
- Linguistic holism – the structural mechanics of primitive languages serve the function of helping speakers to ‘blend’ with the surrounding environment mentally (by referring to themselves in the third person).
- Emotional integrity – the structure of many sentences in primitive languages reflects the affiliated people’s tendency to focus on the emotional aspects of the referred objects/subjects.
The provided line of argumentation, in defense of the idea that the concepts of language and identity are mutually interrelated, does substantiate the full appropriateness of the practice of using the linguistic impressions of people, as a tool of gaining a discursive insight into the workings of their psyche.
This is because, as it was implied earlier, the particulars of how people use language, while communicating with each other, reflect the varying extent of their evolutionary advancement. Therefore, there is indeed a perfectly legitimate sense in defining the measure of people’s actual ‘humanity’ in relation to the manner in which they express themselves verbally. I believe that this conclusion fully correlates with the paper’s initial thesis.
Agar, M. 1994, Language shock: understanding the culture of conversation, William Morrow, New York.
Bower, B. 2000, ‘Cultures of reason’, Science News, vol. 157 no. 4, pp. 56-58.
Bruhl, L. 1928, The ‘soul’ of the primitive, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London.
Howells, R. 2006, ‘Is it because I is Black?’ Race, humor and the polysemiology of Ali G’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, vol. 26 no. 2, pp. 155-177.
Leavitt, J. 2011, Linguistic relativities: language diversity and modern thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Lynn, R. & Vanhanen, T. 2002, IQ and the wealth of nations. Westport, Greenwood Publishing Group.
Masuda, T. et al. 2008, ‘Culture and aesthetic preference: comparing the attention to context of East Asians and Americans’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 34 no. 9, pp. 1260-1275.
Sebba, M. 2007, “Identity and language construction in an online community: the case of ‘Ali G’”, in P Auer (ed.), Social identity and communicative styles – an alternative approach to linguistic variability, Mouton, Berlin, pp. 361-392.