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Review of  The Sociolinguistics of Identity

Reviewer: Natalie Braber
Book Title: The Sociolinguistics of Identity
Book Author: Tope Omoniyi Goodith White
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 18.1656

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EDITOR: Omoniyi, Tope; White, Goodith
TITLE: The Sociolinguistics of Identity
SERIES: Advances in Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Continuum
YEAR: 2006

Natalie Braber, Department of Linguistics, Nottingham Trent University, UK


This book is an edited collection of papers by different authors, of which
the chapters examine the analytical tools employed in the sociolinguistic
research of 'identity'. Its main aim is to discuss how efficient and
applicable these methods have been as well as examining the place of
identity in a variety of different contexts. The background to this
collected work came from the seminar on 'Language and Identity' at the
University of Reading, UK (5-6 July 2004) but authors who did not present
at this seminar were also invited to contribute to the volume. This volume
is divided into three parts: Theory and methods of identity and
sociolinguistics; identity in micro-sociolinguistics; and identity in
macro-sociolinguistics. The first chapter is an introduction where the
editors give an overview of their purposes and methodology. This chapter
also gives a brief description of each of the individual chapters in the book.

Part I

The first part of this book focuses on the analytical tools which are
employed by sociolinguists to research identity.

Chapter 2: 'Hierarchy of Identities' (Tope Omoniyi) discusses the challenge
of analysing individuals with multiple identities and how these identities
are managed by individuals and groups. This 'hierarchy of identities' is
intended to show that identity can be fluid and how the focus of identities
can change in particular 'moments' where the presence of either
complementing or conflicting identities may be present. Omoniyi argues that
more traditional views of language and identity, such as essentialism (see
Bucholtz 2003: 400), do not recognise that identity can be constructed by
individuals and/or groups and cannot accommodate hybridity adequately.
Omoniyi attempts to show that identity and identification are more complex
than traditional sociolinguistic literature reflects. He argues these
points by not only examining 'conventional' interaction, but also by
examining processes of identification where the 'encoder' is not present,
such as road signs and car number plates which require locating the self
and the other through use of signs.

Chapter 3: 'Identity in Applied Linguistics' (David Block). This chapter
focuses on the fact that many researchers have unquestioningly accepted the
post-structuralist view on identity – that identity is not fixed, but
unstable and fragmented. Block discusses that rather than solely focusing
on social constructs such as ethnicity and gender, participation in
communities of practice (family, social activities, work colleagues) are
used to construct identities within relationships. Block supports the
post-structuralist view that although the individual can be shaped by their
sociohistory, they can also be actively involved in shaping their future
identity as they progress through life. Block discusses a more
psychologically informed approach to identity by discussing a study of
silence in second language learning and the fact that this silence can be
part of an internal identity struggle with regard to the learning of the
second language. This chapter contains a case study which examines an
English learner's attitudes towards her teacher and the English language.

Chapter 4: 'Constructing languages, constructing national identities'
(Yasir Suleiman). This chapter discusses national identity and how a
'nation' can be made up of individuals from different ethnic, cultural,
economic, territorial and linguistic groups and whether this can pose a
problem for investigating 'fixed' senses of identity. As opposed to
Omoniyi's sense of identity 'hierarchy', Suleiman instead uses the concept
of polycentricity to describe the relationship between individuals
belonging to one national group. He believes language plays an important
role in creating a sense of national identity and also in the creation of
nation building. When discussing linguistic identity, Suleiman states that
it is important to distinguish between 'interiority', that is, the interior
identity of the self, from that of 'exteriority' which deals with the
social domain of professional and collective identity. He explains that
this differentiation is rarely made in studies of language and identity.
Suleiman then gives examples from several countries to explain his theories
of language and identity. Suleiman also discusses the importance of names
as part of identity -- both the names of languages, as well as those of
individuals and relates this to Blommaert's (1996) concepts of language
ideology, where a name can legitimise a linguistic variety, for example.

Part II

The second part of this book is entitled 'Identity in
Micro-sociolinguistics' and these chapters deal with small communities and
describe the role language plays in establishing and maintaining social
identity. These studies all focus on features of language such as
pronunciation, grammatical aspects and lexical items and discuss these in
relation to social categories.

Chapter 5: 'English pronunciation and second language speaker identity'
(Jennifer Jenkins). This chapter focuses on the issue of identity in
language learning and whether 'native-like' pronunciation is the ideal
which should be aimed at by non-native speakers who use English as a Lingua
Franca (ELF). Jenkins discusses a study where she collected two sets of
data over a period of four years, and this data was made up of
miscommunication and accommodation data which were followed up by
questionnaires and interviews where possible. Jenkins suggested following a
particular programme which would allow speakers to assert their L1 identity
while communicating with others using ELF. However, Jenkins' studies
showed that non-native teachers and learners are on the whole strongly
opposed to abandoning native-speaker pronunciation norms in order to form
part of an international ELF community as many believed that this would
encourage the fossilisation of errors in pronunciation.

Chapter 6: 'Shifting identities and orientations in a border town' (Carmen
Llamas) examines the identity construction process of speakers in
Middlesborough (in the North of England, but which has a 'border town'
status). It focuses on two particular phonological features, glottalized
/p/ and TH-fronting and the speakers' attitudes towards their usage. Both
Tajfel (as cited in Turner 1999) and Anderson's concepts of identity are
important to this study, with the sense of 'belonging' to an 'imagined'
community playing an important role in linguistic choices. Other people are
categorized according to perceived differences or similarities of which
language can form an important part. This study uses an Affiliation Score
Index (ASI) which tests speakers' sense of local affiliation and compares
this to the particular linguistic features which are used by these
speakers. The study shows that innovatory forms used by particular speakers
in this community can signal a sense of a high level of local orientation
and explains how a sense of belonging to different groups can be seen to be
reflected in language usage.

Chapter 7: 'Regional variation and identity in Sunderland' (Lourdes
Burbano-Elizondo) examines local identity and language in light of
Silverstein's (1992) orders of indexicality relating to the links which
speakers establish between linguistic form and social category (first-order
indexicality) and the ways in which speakers rationalise these links
(second-order indexicality). Previous studies (for example, Beal 1993) have
shown that this is an area with a strong sense of local identity, in
particular in opposition to Newcastle 'Geordies'. This study aims to
examine whether the features which Sunderland people believe to
characterise their local identity are also used by these speakers. This is
seen as particularly important as 'outsiders' to these communities are
rarely able to distinguish these two varieties. Participants were asked to
discuss such distinguishing features and the results showed that these
speakers considered themselves as an independent community from Newcastle.
Burbano-Elizondo explains that the next stage in this study will be to
examine these meta-linguistic statements and to examine whether they
correlate with the actual linguistic data.

Part III

The final part of this book is 'Identity in Macro-sociolinguistics' and
these chapters focus on situations in which participants have to choose
between varieties of a language or between different languages and how this
can affect the speaker's orientation of identity.

Chapter 8: 'Guernsey French, identity and language endangerment' (Julia
Sallabank). This study examines attitudes towards Guernsey French,
particularly as this linguistic variety is spoken by an ever-decreasing
number of speakers. Sallabank points out that it is important to note that
language is only one of the markers of identity which inhabitants of
Guernsey can use and that language loss need not equate the end of an
ethnic identity. Interviews were carried out with inhabitants of Guernsey
which discussed their sense of local identity, and their use of Guernsey
French. Although many inhabitants of Guernsey were found to have a strong
sense of local identity, this was not always accompanied by the ability to
speak Guernsey French. For many people, this linguistic variety was
associated with poverty and backwardness. Even those who had a more
positive attitude did not feel confident enough in their linguistic ability
to pass on their knowledge to their children. This linguistic variety has
the further difficulty that there is not one unified variety, so even if
schools taught Guernsey French this would not necessarily relate to the
individual's variety.

Chapter 9: 'Narrative constructions of gender and professional identities'
(Louise Mullany). It examines work narratives and explores how the women
interviewed felt that their professional identity could be constrained by
their gender by those around them. Mullany explains that narratives are a
suitable form for examining identity as previous studies have shown that
narrative is a form through which self, identity and culture can be
expressed. She examines identity within the Communities of Practice which
are found in the workplace and how people 'perform' within them. The
interviews carried out indicate that although women are able to work in
higher functions, they can frequently be constrained by their gendered
identity, in terms of their role as 'mothers' as well as their physical

Chapter 10: 'Masculine identities on an academic writing programme' (Siân
Preece). This chapter examines the case study of male undergraduates at
university and how their attendance at an academic writing session can
cause conflict in their sense of identity. Preece illustrates how these
students cope with their new environment where they may feel they are
treated as not having the correct abilities and 'perform' a laddish
masculinity to overcome their insecurity. This case study shows how talking
'slang' can highlight a strong sense of in-group identity which was treated
as the antithesis of academic language, which is seen as 'posh'. The data
exemplifies how 'witty' language, using taboo language, and making
disparaging comments about others cement this sense of identity.

Chapter 11: 'Ethnolinguistic identity in a Dutch Islamic primary classroom'
(Massimiliano Spotti). It examines the conflicting identities held by
immigrant pupils in a Dutch primary school and explains that although for
many a Dutch identity allowed for a sense of belonging to the host
community (particularly inside the school), most children also felt a
strong sense of affiliation to the countries they had come from which was
important outside of school. For many of these children, having the ability
to speak Dutch and 'belong' to the Dutch community would mean a different
existence to that of their parents as they would be able to obtain
positions with more status in their futures. As a result of this, many of
these children reported using Dutch with younger siblings and many were
aware of the low importance of their 'native' language on the linguistic
market. This study appears to exemplify that individuals can belong to more
than one nation and can participate in multiple social groups.

Chapter 12: 'Negotiating identities in a multilingual science class'
(Roberta Vann, Katherine Richardson Bruna and Moisés Perales Escudero).
This chapter also deals with immigrant children in a classroom situation
and examines how identities are forged by such children. This study also
highlights the fluidity of identity and how interaction can create
identities in particular situations. This chapter, however, also deals with
pupil-teacher interaction and how potentially face-threatening acts on
behalf of the teacher are dealt with to avoid confrontation. The teacher
uses dialogue, by using the children's own language (which is Spanish) to
invoke solidarity and to encourage participation in the classroom. This
study also examines gender identity construction and how male and female
gender are 'performed' differently by the pupils of the classroom.

The final chapter, both of this section and the book as a whole, is Chapter
13: 'Standard Irish English as a marker of Irish identity' (Goodith White).
This chapter aims to explore whether Irish identity can better be expressed
by a variety of Irish English, rather than Irish as had been traditionally
suggested. White emphasizes the role that language can play in expressing a
sense of national identity, and that Irish English allows for more global
communication in a way that Irish could not. Her empirical study allows
examination of the emergence of this linguistic variety as well as
attitudes held towards it. White shows that for many years Irish English
was treated as a sub-standard variety of English and that this influenced
attitudes towards it. Furthermore, White carried out a study with teachers
of ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) and teachers of English as
a first language in the Republic of Ireland. Although most teachers
commented that they would teach British English to students, many were
found to accept Irish English alternatives which varied from Standard
British English norms. Particularly the teachers of English as a first
language were seen to be more tolerant of Irish English alternatives than
the teachers of ESOL.


This book should be of great interest to students and researchers involved
in language and identity. It is intended for both scholars of
sociolinguistics and non-experts interested in these issues. The book is a
clear analysis of the analytical tools used by linguists to examine the
concepts of language and identity, as well as illustrating an impressive
variety of case studies both on the macro- and micro-level.

The range of linguistic phenomena examined is fairly broad, covering a
variety of issues, ranging from phonological features to discourse studies
of narratives, questionnaires and interviews. Different theoretical
viewpoints are illustrated which allow the reader to gain knowledge of
alternative opinions and access further references if needed.

The sequencing of chapters and their internal cohesion is clear and
well-structured and allows the reader to pick specific chapters of
interest. Although the wide subject area is certainly interesting as it
allows for a discussion of a wide variety of topics, this occasionally
results in analyses which are not explained in as much depth as would be
desirable. This is, however, unavoidable in an edited collection of papers
of this sort, and authors have made up for this by providing extensive
referencing which allow the reader to follow fields of interest.

Overall, this book is well-written, well-structured and extremely
accessible. It is a valuable resource in the field of language and identity.


Anderson, B (1991) Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and
spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Beal, JC (1993) The grammar of Tyneside and Northumbrian English. In Milroy
& Milroy (1993), 187-213.

Blommaert, A (1996) Language and nationalism: comparing Flanders with
Tanzania, Nations and Nationalism 2, 235-56.

Bucholtz, M (2003) Sociolinguistic nostalgia and the authentication of
identity, Journal of Sociolinguistics 7(3), 398-416.

Ellemers, N; Spears, R & Doosje, B (1999) Social identity: Context,
Commitment, Content. Oxford: Blackwell.

Milroy, J & Milroy L (1993) Real English: The grammar of English dialects
in the British Isles. London: Longman.

Silverstein, M (1992) The uses and utility of ideology: some reflections,
Pragmatics 2(3), 311-323.

Turner, JC (1999) Some current issues in research on social identity and
self-categorization theories. In Ellemers, Spears & Doosje (1999), 6-34.

Natalie Braber is currently lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at
Nottingham Trent University. Her research interests are primarily in
sociolinguistics, particularly language variation and identity as well as
the effect of emotion on language use.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0826490646
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Pages: 256
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