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Review of  Language, Borders and Identity

Reviewer: Andrea Eniko Lypka
Book Title: Language, Borders and Identity
Book Author: Dominic Watt Carmen Llamas
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Cognitive Science
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.3436

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Political, cultural, technological, economic, social, and geographic borders are peripheral, symbolic spaces for identity negotiation and contestation. “Language, Borders, and Identity”, a collection of 14 studies edited by Dominic Watt and Carmen Llamas, aligns with the growing body of multidisciplinary inquiry into identity and language use in borderlands, reconceptualizing identity as fluid, multidimensional, evolving, relational, and discursively constituted sense-making process within the power relations of language, culture, politics and society. The editors argue that in geographical, national, and/or political borders are spaces in which identities can be more contested and identity negotiations are more nuanced because of power hierarchy. The text stretches the traditional identity markers— such as ethnicity, gender, race, and nationality— and highlights the pivotal roles of language and power in the process of an individual’s legitimization in a community of practice.

The 268-page book is divided into three sections. The first seven chapters examine speaker attitudes and opinions toward linguistic varieties that constitute identities in different borderlands. The next three chapters reveal the importance of language and power in identity negotiation. The last four chapters examine language policy and planning, American Sign Language (ASL), and approaches to linguistic analysis as related to identity. Studies in this volume highlight the evolving nature of identity research, cautioning against viewing identity as a simplistic construct.

Correlations between phonological production and attitudinal data on the use of Scottish and English varieties of English, national identity, and the Scottish/English border region are the focus of the First Chapter by Dominic Watt, Carmen Llamas, Gerard Docherty, Damien Hall, and Jennifer Nycz. Using data from a large-scale study on phonological variation, the “Accent and Identity on the Scottish/English Border” project, the authors reveal that the Voice Onset Time (VOT) variable was conditioned by non-linguistic factors, e.g. nation, coast, and speaker age, and that VOT was the shortest on the east coast compared to the west coast.

In Chapter Two, David Britain adopts Giddens’s (1991) concept of routines to create habits in order to provide a case study of dialect boundaries in the Fens, a marshland area of eastern England. The author provides an in-depth analysis of how a complex set of interactions among natural, military, political, and socioeconomic factors over extended time have created physical and dialect boundaries and normalized distinct accents and dialects in this particular area.

From a sociohistorical perspective, in the next chapter, Charles Boberg discusses linguistic borders in North American English in the context of resettlement and immigration patterns that have influenced the linguistic boundaries between the US and Canada. Additionally, the author provides a critical analysis of mapping methods by Kurath, Carver, Labov, Ash, Boberg, and others to delineate major dialect regions, revealing that existing linguistic borders shift based on the interplay between local and national identities and global languages and other factors.

Chapter Four focuses on the intersections of traditional Spanish and Border Spanish and ethnic identity in New Mexico and Colorado, as well as the evolving nature of New Mexico Spanish.
Neddy A. Vigil and Garland D. Billz use survey data and interview excerpts with Spanish speakers to illustrate how language maintenance, loss, and language shift complicate the nature of ethnic identity negotiation within the wider aspects of languages with high prestige, such as the new Spanish and English.

Bilingual residents’ preference for using Uruguayan Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese in the north-eastern Uruguay border with Brazil is the focus of the study by Mark Waltermire in Chapter Five. The exploration of this phenomena consists of fifty hours of individual and group interviews of colloquial speech from a sample of 63 Spanish/Portuguese bilinguals. Findings suggest that local residents’ language use and preference were dichotomous: they used more Spanish but prefered Portuguese.

In Chapter Six, Wendy Baker-Smemoe and Breana Jones focus on bilingual English-Spanish speakers’ language use in Mormon farmlands on the US/Mexico border. Specifically, the researchers examine phonetic features of these languages, including pre-lateral laxing, the use of the voiced bilabial stop in Spanish, vowel mergers in English and Spanish, and the merger of /b/ and /v/ in Spanish, in order to illustrate the influence of religion and ethnicity on speakers’ language use in a group of Spanish-speaker members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), English-speaker LDS, and Spanish non-LDS.

Drawing on Social Identity Theory (Tajfel, 1978), in Chapter Seven, Jaine Beswick examines language choice in commercial discourse in the Galician-Portuguese borderland divided by the Minho River, using a qualitative approach. Findings of this longitudinal study reveal that in contrast to Portuguese participants that articulated a Portuguese national identity, Galician participants indexed their regional identity by preferring to speak their Galician and distanced themselves from the national Spanish identity and Castilian language by using the national language less and adopting a dialectal Galician accent.

In Chapter Eight, Chris Montgomery investigates Scottish and English high-school students’ perceptions of dialect areas in Great Britain and the interplay between proximity, cultural prominence and denial in the Scottish/English border, using draw-a-map tasks and interviews. Results suggest that both English and Scottish participants had similar perceptions about dialect variations; however, English respondents had little knowledge of the dialect variations in Scotland, possibly because of less commuting across the border from the English side.

Nikolas Coupland explores language and identity as constrained by legislative discourse on language policy and bilingualism in Wales in Chapter Nine. By providing examples of public signs, restaurant menus that feature messages in both Welsh and English, Coupland argues that these constructs tend to simplify the relationship between language, identity, and power.

Jeffrey L. Kallen’s case study in Chapter Ten reveals the multiple layers of identity in visual landscapes from the dimensions of local, regional, and national communities and political framework. The author illustrates the discourse of anti-English resistance through analyses of maps of the Irish/English border, bilingual signs, such as, street signs and ethnic store signs in the border area between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In Chapter Eleven, Daniel Redinger and Carmen Llamas describe secondary school students’ and teachers attitudes on multilingualism in the Luxemburg educational context and Luxembourgish identity, using questionnaire data about participants’ language use at home, language preference in school, perceived usefulness of French, linguistic competence, and ethnicity. Findings revealed that participants had positive attitudes toward French as useful language for advancement and toward Luxembourgish as the language of instruction. The authors argue that such positive attitudes toward Luxembourgish seem to reduce the power hierarchy among French, Luxembourgish and German languages.

In the next chapter, Michel Bert and James Costa investigate dialectal boundaries within Occitan and Francoprovençal, in the Rhône-Alpes and Provence regions in southeastern France, drawing on a sociological approach to identity. The authors suggest that depending on power positions, linguistic boundaries of these languages differ among scientists and speakers.

Sign language in the deaf community is the focus of the study by Elizabeth S. Parks in Chapter Thirteen. Specifically, the author examines perspectives of the deaf community on the influence of American Sign Language (ASL) as the lingua franca in cross-national deaf interaction. For example, in the southern Caribbean countries of Grenada and St. Vincent, the deaf community has largely accepted the use of ASL; however, the uniqueness of the Grenadian deaf community is distinguished through establishing a Grenadian ASL variety.

In the final Chapter, Kim Wilson and Paul Folkes provide an analysis of Language Analysis for the Determination of Origin (LADO) used to determine a speaker’s linguistic repertoire based on the speaker’s speech sample. The authors highlight the complexity of conducting LADO, highlighting discrepancies between the use of native speakers or linguists as interviewers, the evolving nature of language, the speaker’s perception of the use of languages in various contexts, linguistic proficiency, the lack of transparency and insufficient guidelines regarding this method.


From a sociolinguistic perspective, the wide range of empirical studies and analytical essays in this book remind the reader about the relationship among identity, language, and power. Authors discuss identity in relation to language policy, dialect boundaries, code-switching, and the degree of mutual intelligibility among diverse languages, in order to highlight how language use in public and private contexts creates opportunities for certain groups to (re)claim identities and (re)negotiate borders. On one hand, the acceptance of a language might standardize cross-border communication in the dominant language while constraining the use of minority languages. On the other hand, the deliberate use of a minority language, a regional language, might also constitute a localized, hybrid identity, depending on the communicative situation and social context.

Notwithstanding the predominantly Eurocentric orientation of this volume, international scholars and practitioners in the fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics, and forensic phonetics investigate language users’ cross-national identity constitution in everyday interactions embedded in sociopolitical, cultural, linguistic, and historical contexts. Various languages, among them traditional Spanish and Border Spanish, Portuguese, Welsh, Irish, Occitan and Francoprovençal, American Sign Language, German, and language variations are examined in less known geographical spaces, such as the Fens, a marshland in eastern England (Chapter Two) and Mexican Mormon settlements on the US-Mexican border (Chapter Six) and more known areas, such as the Scottish/English border (Chapter Eight), the Irish/English border (Chapter Nine), and Luxembourg (Chapter Eleven). Findings suggest that identity is strategically indexed in lexical, phonological, and morphological constructs that mark group affiliation and that identity constitution becomes particularly nuanced in the context of borders.

Studies in this volume examine predominantly culturally, linguistically, and/or historically bound groups to demonstrate how identity and group membership are embodied in certain linguistic features of minority languages and in relation to regional and national languages and ideologies. For example, Beswick focuses on Portuguese and Galician speakers in Chapter Seven, Coupland on the Welsh community in Chapter Nine, and Parks on the deaf community in Chapter Thirteen.

This collection conceptualizes both quantitative and qualitative research approaches to the study of identity through a sociolinguistic lens. Most papers offer transparent methodology and in-depth discussion about data sources and analyses that will greatly benefit both novice and more seasoned researchers as well as policy makers or other individuals interested in identity negotiation on borderlands. These studies survey language attitudes of bilingual population in various semiotic modes, such as interview talk, written text, and multimodal landscapes, such as maps, bilingual public signs and visual and textual displays.

Theory building could have been more fully explored in most chapters. For example, findings of the study in Chapter Six on language use in a local community could further the community of practice theoretical framework (Lave & Wenger, 1991). These perspectives are useful in other areas of research, such as language teaching and education, education because they focus on the local analysis of communities and insist that learners should be conceptualized as members of the social and historical collectivities, and not as isolated individuals.

In addition to a transparent methodology, most chapters provide rich sociohistorical context of specific borderland regions to illustrate the development of a language variation trajectory. For example, in Chapter Four, the researchers provide linguistic evidence through which to describe the factors that impacted the sociolinguistic landscape of the Spanish in New Mexico, including the US impact on language and identity, the Mexican-American war of 1845-1848, the political, economic and educational control of Anglos and the impact of modern Mexico . For example, the Traditional Spanish word “salarata” for baking soda is borrowed from the “salaratus” used in the 19th century in the US and the Border Spanish term “soda de(l) martilio” is a literal translation of the Arm and Hammer logo made in the US.

In sum, the volume is a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on identity, power, and language in borderlands. Most chapters predominantly focus on identity negotiations in the everyday communication practices of well-defined groups and within the power dynamics in borderlands. However, these studies do not address identity negotiations of transient communities, such as guest workers, study abroad students, refugees, or undocumented immigrants. Examining identity negotiation, socialization, and second language learning in less established groups, such as temporary residents in a border region, could have expanded the definition of identity negotiation as fluid and socially constructed processes to other, less visible communities or individuals. Readers interested in studying how limited access to education and language learning constrain certain groups’ identity negotiation and how identity is performed across various modes of communication may find this volume lacking in these topics.


Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Tajfel, H. (Ed.). (1978). Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations. London: Academic Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Andrea Lypka is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include arts-based research methods, language learner identity, and discourse analysis.

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