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Review of  Language and Identity

Reviewer: Simo K. Määttä
Book Title: Language and Identity
Book Author: John E. Joseph
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 16.1222

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Date: Wed, 13 Apr 2005 08:24:25 -0700
From: Simo Kalervo Maatta
Subject: Language and Identity: National, Ethnic, Religious

AUTHOR: Joseph, John E.
TITLE: Language and Identity
SUBTITLE: National, Ethnic, Religious
PUBLISHER: Palgrave MacMillan
YEAR: 2004

Simo K. Määttä

This book explores the role of language in the formation and
interpretation of national, ethnic, and religious identities, as well as
the ways in which different sub-fields of linguistics, sociolinguistics in
particular, have dealt with the topic. It argues that the consideration of
identity should form part of any study of language; ultimately, the author
contends, research on language and identity can bring a contribution to
the "rehumanization" of linguistics (Afterword, p. 226 in particular).

The author starts with a short introduction (1-14) to the problem, i.e.,
the nature of identity, including an overview of related concepts, such as
self, person, ethos, persona, subject, subjectivity, and identification.
He strongly argues that identity can be understood as an entirely
linguistic phenomenon (12).

Chapter Two (The Functions and Evolution of Language, 15-40) aims at
showing that identity is indeed a fundamental feature and function of
language. In addition, it argues that a theory of language taking
interpretation, instead of communication and representation, as the
primary function of language is one reconcilable with evolution. This
requires the assumption of "a primordial language subject-cum-object
reacting to the world around it," rather than "privileging (of) the active
agency of the subject that is itself a historical product" (39). Indeed,
according to Joseph, "linguistic identity is a category that blurs the
distinction between the two traditional functions of language" (16). On
the other hand, identity could be considered a subcategory of
representation, although at the same time extending beyond it; finally,
identity is defined "as the category (or set of categories) into which a
person (or less often, an animal or object or abstraction) is read as
belonging, expressible as or (in the case of a proper name) consisting of
a noun phrase or adjective phrase" (40).

Through an overview of Malinowski's concept of phatic function and a short
exploration of the performative function of the language, Joseph concludes
that the isolation of language from its speakers and interpreters and the
context distantiates us from any "essential truth about language." (24).
The interpretative function of language, on the other hand,
is "evolutionary deepest" (29). Thus, "sociolinguistics, the study of the
audible and visible, rather than deductive and imaginary, the study of the
evolutionarily continuous and viable," is closest to reality -- the
subject of the book is "people speaking" (36).

Chapter Three (Approaching Identity in Traditional Linguistic Analysis, 41-
66) starts with the exploration of classical and Romantic views of
language, nation, culture, and the individual and concentrates on the
contributions of those interested in the "social in language," such as
Voloshinov, Saussure, Jespersen, Sapir, Firth, Halliday, Brown & Gilman,
and Labov. The chapter concludes with a short overview of research on
language and gender, Network Theory, communities of practice, and language

Chapter Four (Integrating Perspectives from Adjacent Disciplines, 67-91)
studies the contribution of fields of inquiry other than linguistics to
the examination of linguistic identity, including the work of scholars
such as Goffman, Bernstein, Foucault, Bourdieu, Gumperz, and Hymes. The
chapter also explores research done on attitudes and accommodation, as
well as Social Identity Theory and self-categorization. The end of the
chapter (83-91), however, is devoted to a debate about the benefits and
defects of essentialism, an epistemological framework in which categories
such as race, gender, or class are taken as given, and constructionism,
more interested in identity as a process through which categories are
constructed. "(W)hatever the 'primary function of speech' may be, the
primary function of language is certainly the interpretation of what
others say to us" (87), the author reiterates; while his theoretical
viewpoint appears to be closest to constructionism, he notes that
discourse on essentialism on the part of constructionists, ironically,
essentializes history (90). On the other hand, essentialism should not be
completely discarded when language and identity are studied: "constructing
an identity is in fact constructing and essence" (ibid.).

Indeed, the second half of Joseph's book aims at exploring the social
construction of three "particularly powerful" 'essentialized' identities
(90), i.e., national, ethnic, and religious. First, the author provides on
overview of certain theories of national identity (Chapter Five: Language
in National Identities, 92-131); theories of ethnic and religious
identities are examined in Chapter Seven (Language in Ethnic/Racial and
Religious/Sectarian Identities, 162-93). Chapters Six and Eight are case
studies: The New Quasi-Nation of Hong Kong (132-61) and Christian and
Muslim Identities in Lebanon (194-223).

Chapter Five includes a discussion of the nature of national identities
and the starting moment of nationalism. Subsequently, the author analyzes
the contributions of Dante, Nebrija, Valdés, Du Bellay, Fichte, Renan,
Kadourie, Gellner, Anderson, Billig, Hobsbawm, and Silverstein to the
theory of linguistic nationalism, as well as recent research on
developments on different continents. Chapter Six, the case study of Hong
Kong, provides a short political and linguistic history and analyzes
samples of written Hong Kong English, an entity recognized by linguists
but denied by most of its speakers. The analysis concentrates on features
in which Hong Kong English is different from standard English and examines
the interlanguage features which can explain them. One of the main points
is to dismantle the myth of declining English in Hong Kong: the fact that
English spoken in Hong Kong might appear as deteriorating is due to the
fact that a larger population is nowadays educated in English, although
not as thoroughly as in the past, as well as the fact that a distinctive
Hong Kong English is indeed developing. According to the author, Hong Kong
provides a good example of linguistic identity construction, the outcome
of which, including the development of a discreet Hong Kong English and
identity, is uncertain.

Chapter Seven discusses ethnic, racial, sectarian, and religious
identities, concentrating on the process of identity construction rather
than the product thereof. A key concept is that of a shared habitus: "not
every community of practice will manifest itself in a linguistic identity"
(167); rather, "we can expect a community of practice to manifest a
linguistic identity in just those cases where the practices around which
the community is formed enter into the habitus of the individual community
members. This happens most powerfully when the individuals grow up
performing the practices as part of their everyday routine" (167-8).
Ethnic and racial identity claims are particularly powerful, the author
claims: even the Holocaust could be possible only after a racial/ethnic
difference and a Jewish linguistic identity were constructed, although
anti-Semitism as such had been present for a long time (172). Personal
names, on the other hand, function as a "text" for ethnic and religious
identity: individual identities "start with a personal name" (176). At
this point, the author uses personal narratives taken from South-East
Asian students (177-81).

The last part of Chapter Seven (181-93), however, is dedicated to the
discussion of globalization, including language spread and loss and
identity leveling. The languages and identities under threat, Joseph
argues, are ethnic rather than national (181); they can also be
religious: "because the spread of English is bound up with a 'modernity'
widely seen as eschewing traditional beliefs in favour of a faith in
technology" (182). These arguments appear to provide a rationale for the
inclusion of globalization debate in this chapter. Globalization is not a
new phenomenon; in addition, "it means so many things to so many people
that it ultimately may not mean anything at all" (188). Furthermore,
discourse on globalization tends to fail to notice that there is also a
tendency towards more diversity within English (191). Indeed, there are
forces which impede linguistic homogenization: "the imperatives of
individual linguistic identity, which demands variation and prefers
comprehension, and those of nation/ethnic/religious linguistic identity"
(191). Besides, trade requires incomprehension, a quality without
which "human societies would never have developed or survived" (192) --
perhaps this somewhat surprising argument was proposed because so much of
the globalization debate centers on global economy and trade.

Chapter Eight analyzes the role of language in the development of
Christian and Muslim identities in Lebanon. Alongside an overview of
history, history of language, and cultural history, the author
concentrates on the distribution of bi- and tri-lingualism involving
English or French among different religious groups. These analyzes are
supported by the results of fascinating sociolinguistic opinion polls and
surveys and a thorough historical analysis. Somewhat oddly, however, the
bulk of the latter part of the chapter is dedicated to Renan's relation
with Lebanon, including biographical interpretation aimed at deciphering
the construction of his identity and the influence thereof on his theory
of linguistic nationalism. The chapter ends with the discussion of the
identity of the Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf.

Language and Identity is a significant contribution not only to the theory
of linguistic identity but to the theory of language as a whole,
sociolinguistics and disourse analysis in particular. It is highly
recommended reading for those interested in the linguistic situation in
Lebanon and in Hong Kong, as well as those studying the connections
between religion, ethnicity, and language and those fascinated by global

There are numerous interesting, new ideas in the book. For example, the
possibility of identity being an entirely linguistic construction and
phenomenon, as the author suggests, is an intriguing and thought-provoking
insight. Another particularly fascinating argument is that of fictional
characters appearing as more real than real people because their
identities are contained (4) -- extended to, e.g., national identities,
such an idea could help us understand better the power of ideologies such
as nationalism. Among other main arguments of the book, one worth of
special mention is that of over-reading, by which the author describes the
fact that we "read an identity onto the people whose words we hear and
read, "although "(T)here us no logical reason why linguistic patterns must
reflect other attributes of the person who displays them" (38-9). The
issue of interpretation and the methodology of its observation is indeed
intriguing; as the author rightly points out, "production can be observed
directly, understanding only indirectly" (30). However, the fact that much
of the analysis of actual data in this book consists of the interpretation
of produced written texts rather than the observation or interpretation of
their interpretation shows how difficult it is to separate production from
interpretation. It is also somewhat difficult to understand the
evolutionary basis of interpretation, e.g., when considering the
interpretation of written texts. Indeed, is it absolutely necessary to
know what the primary function of language is and. Moreover, why should
there be only one?

The book's title is perhaps too ambitious, possibly even misleading:
national, ethnic, and religious aspects of language and identity is a very
vast topic for a monograph. In fact, religious and ethnic identities
receive much less attention than national ones; the fact that theory,
data, and personal narratives are not always presented in a logical order
might be due to the problematic scope of the topic.

Furthermore, the theoretical basis for the "social constructionist"
approach remains somewhat reduced, especially considering that, indeed,
rather than people speaking, the arguments are based mostly on written
texts and entire discourses. A more detailed inquiry of, e.g.,
performative aspects of identity formation might have been useful; such an
inquiry could provide tools for overcoming the problem of the explanatory
value and authority of particular data. This problem, I argue, is one of
the biggest problems of macro-sociolinguistic research and discourse
analysis using categories of interpretation and analysis of "autonomous"
linguistics -- therefore, to a large extent, sharing its ideas of the
nature of language -- while, at the same time, dealing with concepts more
or less incompatible with the notions of language thereof, such as
ideology, gender, or the nation.

Finally, the critique of "autonomous" or "traditional" linguistics,
scattered throughout the book, and the claims of sociolinguistics being
closer to allegedly biological or evolutionary basis of language, are
somewhat odd; indeed, if globalization means so many things that it may
mean nothing at all, could we not argue the same for "language"
and "linguistics" as well, to name but a few contested concepts?


Simo K. Määttä earned his doctorate from the University of California,
Berkeley in 2004. His research interests include language ideologies,
sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, and translation studies.

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