Identity in its simplest definition is ‘who I am’. If a person asked me who I am, definitely what comes into my mind is that this person wants to know your name. Assuming that the same person asking me ‘who I am’ knows my name, then this person is looking for a more profound identity of the real me. The person wants to know who you are deep down. The answer to such a question does not come easily because who one is deep down is never fully captured and expressed in words.
This then gives us two basic aspect of a person’s identity: their name that single them out from others and the inner, intangible that constitute who one really is. Language plays an important role in defining or describing the identity of a person. Listening to a dialogue by different individuals, our interpretation of their identities will most probably be influenced by their voices, accents and other features of how they speak. For example in Amy’s essay, we could tell their identities (Amy and the mother) through the use of language. Their language tells that they were immigrant. This does not mean that language solely determines our interpretation of a person but plays a fundamental role. For example Amy had two form of English language, i.e. the one she spoke with the mother and the other form that addressed other personalities like the stockbroker (Amy 2).
Identity as a Linguistic Phenomenon
One may want to know what this phenomenon of identity is. Identity is realizing who we are at personal level and also at community level. To make such identification, language has been a salient feature of making group membership and social identity. From such group identification, one again is able to know their identity as individual. Through language for example, you are able to know which ethnic group you belong to and from that ethnic group who really are you. A good example is of people who migrate to other social setting. These people find it difficult to fit to such setting due to language differences. For such people to identify with people within that social setting, then learning their language becomes vital. After learning their language such individual are able to fit and identify with the rest. Amy had a problem with her mother’s ‘improper’ English which many of the time made her (mother) not to be attended to by department store workers, in bank, and even in hospital. People pretended not to understand her and others even to assume they did not hear her. This necessitated Amy to intervene and in some cases she had to act as if she was the mother and address other on behave of the mother (Amy 2). Amy was able to communicate to these people though the knowledge of English she had learnt. If no effort had been put to know the English that was being spoken in the region then it would have been difficult for this family to interact freely in the society. Bearing in mind that Amy could speak the same English as the mother, failing to learn the ‘proper English’ as she defined her mother’s English as ‘improper’ would have jeopardized their interaction in the social systems. Amy English helped her mother to receive equal treatment as others would have received (Amy 2). As Baldwin sees it, language is a tool to reveal private identity and to connect or disconnect an individual from the communal identity. (Baldwin)
With regard to social identification, it focuses on how people understand their interaction to the world, how those relationships are constructed across time and space, and how people understand their possibilities for the future. Social identity is seen as individual’s identity made from the language he/she uses within a social group setting (Amy 3). Language is a creator of social identity and a medium to gain self-esteem and power in the society. Communication works as a medium for renegotiating individual position in society and provides an access to power. Gaining power means equal treatment. Through language one is treated as part of that society. This then means that language, the individual, and the society cannot be separated in creation of social identity. In gender determination, language has played a major role. Language is used differently in regard to our sex and this is evidenced in Beverly essay ‘Bitch’. According to Beverly the use of the word ‘bitch has been used negatively in regard to women. The whole essay shows how women are treated different from men by use of language showing that their power position was lesser than those of their counterpart (Beverly 2).
Language behavior expresses complex social meaning. Language defines the different social groups within which we are identified and the role we embrace in the society. Language as research has shown is a symbol of different social identities and it is used to construct a particular identity (Baldwin).
In our contemporary society language has undergone major subdivisions and these subdivisions have led to labeling of languages as a dialect or standard language Britt 15). These subdivisions have been necessitated by a need in the society for closer identification of a smaller group from a larger group. For example, a group wanting to be classified as high social class group would want to distinguish themselves from the rest by adopting a certain dialect or accent in their language and label that as a standard language (Britt 11). As is evidenced in Baldwin’s essay, the blacks out of brutal necessity came up with a language that could convey a message to their fellow blacks without the white understanding what was being conveyed. Then according to Baldwin, language rule should be dictated by what the language must convey but not what is considered standard by the majority or by class (Baldwin). This means that what is considered standard language is not superior than any other form of language in serving its purpose which communication but that need of identification in term of social class leads to such labeling. As Baldwin observes in his essay, a language cannot be considered good over other language varieties as long us those other varieties meets the need of its speakers which is communication. He observes the difference in French language of people from different parts and argues that these people have different realities to control. (Baldwin).
Another factor that leads to language division and labeling is the need for cultural identity. Different people across the globe have different way of life and language has been used to bring out this differences. In such a case most of the divisions are based on accent where a group wanting to be identified as unique due to their culture adopts a new accent either on the same language or dialect. Differences also occur where different names are adopted for objects, events, and places among other things (Britt 16).
Dialect is another factor that have played role in language subdivision and labeling. Dialect in a language is symbolized by systematic differences in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary from other varieties of the same language. This difference in dialect within the same language has led to division and labeling of language. For example, we have American English verse British English. Accent has also contributed in language labeling. In definition, accent is a form of a language spoken by subgroup of speakers of that language. Everyone has an accent just as they have a dialect and the issue here is which accent or dialect you speak with. It is important to note that you can speak the same dialect with someone else but use a different accent. Accent has led to classification of identification of people according to their accent. For example, people of Boston are identified differently from people of Brooklyn and they speak about the same language but different accent (Britt 19).
As discussed earlier, language has vital role in identifying who really a person is. This then means that variation of language serves a vital role for those struggling to find their place in the society. We have seen that language differentiation help to distinguish stratus within any given society. In the society, we have the elite, people of high prestige like politicians, high socioeconomic groups, female, male, and youth among other categories of group. In Amy’s essay we are able to establish identification of Amy. One is on her origin which is outside the region where they are living. This is made possible by the language they use in the family setting. The second personality is the social status and her English while addressing gathering shows that she belongs to the class of elite (Amy 1).The way we look from the outside without linguistic may not really tell which category of group we belong to. An elite walking in the street may not be known to be elite by just a mere look at him/her. But when language is involved through communicating with this individual, then the way he/she uses language will definitely tell you where they belong to in the society. The same applies to someone who wants to be recognized as a high socioeconomic status. To such people who desire their status to be identified, then language variation matters greatly to then. This is because it meets their need for identification. Amy shows this very well when her strife to do what society thought was not possible for her (Amy 3).
A broad connection exists between language and identification. Language defines our ethnic group that we belong to, our status in the social stratification, and also determines the power we hold in our society. Our social identity is created by our language and also our future possibilities are determined by language. With other factors placed in mind, language then plays a major role in determining who we really are and what our future possibilities are.