The traditional roles of language as a source of communication and representation of the speaker; communicative means of various cultural, national, geographical, historical and other groups vary greatly, thus showing the natural means of discrimination and belonging.
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However, the modern socio-cultural linguistics is changing its focus and making the emphasis on not only the usage of language as a reflection of internal qualities and intentions, but on the assistance it can render in reading the speaker and analyzing his or her identity through implemented linguistic means.
Since the concept of identity has been traditionally considered abstract and more often collective, the present stage of socio-linguistic study marks the revelation of individual identities and group identity features in a separate individual clearly, on the empirical level of communication (Joseph, 2006).
One more breakthrough in the socio-linguistic theory is the recognition of inseparability of language and identity. Joseph (2006) proves this point by giving an account of linguistic evolution as a means of social discrimination and performing social actions. In addition, language gave each distinctive group social cohesion and uniqueness, helping the community group members to distinguish allies and enemies (Joseph, 2006).
There has been a variety of identity foci researched by socio-linguistics through the lens of language studies. One of the most traditional foci is gender; the differences in language usage, the dominance of linguistic means and syntactic structures are a recognized historical fact. However, the construct of social identity as perceived before, pertaining to the class to which an individual belongs, was put under question because of limitations it posed in the identity research.
According to the opinion of Joseph (2006), the concept of social identity appeared much broader and much more comprehensive than simple belonging to a social strata; it included such features as the individual belonging to a social group, the self-concept of the individual, the fact of membership in that group, and the awareness of that knowledge by the individual (clearly subjective) (Joseph, 2006).
This hypothesis changes the angle of considering the social identity concept, and allows the researchers in socio-linguistics take a more subjective, individualized outlook at what identity really means for the individuals possessing, constructing and exercising it.
This hypothesis is supported by the later research of Lane (2009) who investigated the meaning of cultural identity the two immigrant Finnish groups residing in Canada had about their “Finnishness”.
It turned out that the two groups managed to have identical language dialects and the same household items, but their identity was surprisingly different because of differing meanings they attributed to them. By means of using the language and household objects, one group tried to reaffirm their identity that had been long oppressed during their residence in Norway.
The other group simply continued to exercise the same routines and speaking patterns as it used to while living in Norway (Lane, 2009). This research provides clear evidence of the fact that even similar identity elements reflected through linguistic means may pertain to different symbolic meanings and intentions, while the individual him- or herself influences the personal identity through the prism of personal perception.
The theory of cultural and national identity reflected through language is not new, and it shows how similar traits are attributed to the representatives of certain groups. The national identity has always been the focus of attention disregarding the individual effect on the identity and the possible range of deviations it can bring to the collective one. Therefore, the new trend in exploring the individual contribution to the formation of identity may produce many new findings for the development of the socio-linguistic theory.
Joseph, J.E. (2006). Identity and Language. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 486-492.
Lane, P. (2009). Identities in action: a nexus analysis of identity construction and language shift. Visual Communication 8(4), pp. 449-468.