Language, Culture and Identity An Ethnolinguistic Perspective


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Sik Hung Ng and Fei Deng

We are committed to sharing past, present, and future works that reflect the special strengths of the University of Arizona and support its land-grant mission. French Author. In this valuable book, ethnographer and anthropologist Brigittine French mobilizes new critical-theoretical perspectives in linguistic anthropology, applying them to the politically charged context of contemporary Guatemala.

Language, Culture, and Identity

French shows, with useful examples, how constructions of language and collective identity are in fact strategies undertaken to serve the goals of institutions including the government, the military, the educational system, and the church and social actors including linguists, scholars, and activists. The construction of identity. Widdowson, H. The ownership of English. If you do not receive e-mail in your 'inbox', check your 'bulk mail' or 'junk mail' folders. User Username Password Remember me.

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Email this article Login required. Email the author Login required. Hide Show all. Through it humans express and communicate their private thoughts and feelings as well as enact various social functions. The social functions include co-constructing social reality between and among individuals, performing and coordinating social actions such as conversing, arguing, cheating, and telling people what they should or should not do.

Language is also a public marker of ethnolinguistic, national, or religious identity, so strong that people are willing to go to war for its defense, just as they would defend other markers of social identity, such as their national flag.

These cognitive, communicative, social, and identity functions make language a fundamental medium of human communication. Language is also a versatile communication medium, often and widely used in tandem with music, pictures, and actions to amplify its power.


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Silence, too, adds to the force of speech when it is used strategically to speak louder than words. The wide range of language functions and its versatility combine to make language powerful. Even so, this is only one part of what is in fact a dynamic relationship between language and power. The other part is that there is preexisting power behind language which it reveals and reflects, thereby transferring extralinguistic power to the communication context. It is thus important to delineate the language—power relationships and their implications for human communication.

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This chapter provides a systematic account of the dynamic interrelationships between language and power, not comprehensively for lack of space, but sufficiently focused so as to align with the intergroup communication theme of the present volume. It echoes the pioneering attempts to develop an intergroup perspective on the social psychology of language and communication behavior made by pioneers drawn from communication, social psychology, and cognate fields see Harwood et al. This intergroup perspective has fostered the development of intergroup communication as a discipline distinct from and complementing the discipline of interpersonal communication.

Against this backdrop, this chapter will be less concerned with any particular social category of intergroup communication or variant of social identity theory, and more with developing a conceptual framework of looking at the language—power relationships and their implications for understanding intergroup communication.

Readers interested in an intra- or interpersonal perspective may refer to the volume edited by Holtgraves a.

An Ethnolinguistic Perspective

Bertrand Russell, logician cum philosopher and social activist, published a relatively little-known book on power when World War II was looming large in Europe Russell, In it he asserted the fundamental importance of the concept of power in the social sciences and likened its importance to the concept of energy in the physical sciences. But unlike physical energy, which can be defined in a formula e. This state of affairs is not unexpected because the very nature of social power is elusive. Foucault , p. Power is also a value-laden concept meaning different things to different people.

These entrenched views surface in management—labor negotiations and political debates between government and opposition. The elusive and value-laden nature of power has led to a plurality of theoretical and conceptual approaches. Five approaches that are particularly pertinent to the language—power relationships will be discussed, and briefly so because of space limitation. Another approach views power as the production of intended effects by overcoming resistance that arises from objective conflict of interests or from psychological reactance to being coerced, manipulated, or unfairly treated.

It provides a structural account of power-balancing mechanisms in social networking Emerson, , and forms the basis for combining with symbolic interaction theory, which brings in subjective factors such as shared social cognition and affects for the analysis of power in interpersonal and intergroup negotiation Stolte, According to this model, it is psychological group formation and associated group-based social identity that produce influence; influence then cumulates to form the basis of power, which in turn leads to the control of resources.

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Language and Power - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication

Common to the five approaches above is the recognition that power is dynamic in its usage and can transform from one form of power to another. Non-decision-making power, the second dimension, is power behind the scene. It involves the mobilization of organizational bias e. Conflict of interests, opposition, and resistance would be absent from this form of power, not because they have been maneuvered out of the contest as in the case of non-decision-making power, but because the people who are subject to power are no longer aware of any conflict of interest in the power relationship, which may otherwise ferment opposition and resistance.

Power in this form can be exercised without the application of coercion or reward, and without arousing perceived manipulation or conflict of interests.

Language, Culture and Identity: An Ethnolinguistic Perspective

As indicated in the chapter title, discussion will focus on the language—power relationships, and not on language alone or power alone, in intergroup communication. It draws from all the five approaches to power and can be grouped for discussion under the power behind language and the power of language.

In the former, language is viewed as having no power of its own and yet can produce influence and control by revealing the power behind the speaker. In the case of modern English, its preeminent status as a global language and international lingua franca has shaped the communication between native and nonnative English speakers because of the power of the English-speaking world that it reflects, rather than because of its linguistic superiority.

In both cases, language provides a widely used conventional means to transfer extralinguistic power to the communication context. Research on the power of language takes the view that language has power of its own. This power allows a language to maintain the power behind it, unite or divide a nation, and create influence. In Figure 1 we have grouped the five language—power relationships into five boxes. Note that the boundary between any two boxes is not meant to be rigid but permeable. For example, by revealing the power behind a message box 1 , a message can create influence box 5.

As another example, language does not passively reflect the power of the language community that uses it box 2 , but also, through its spread to other language communities, generates power to maintain its preeminence among languages box 3. This expansive process of language power can be seen in the rise of English to global language status. A similar expansive process also applies to a particular language style that first reflects the power of the language subcommunity who uses the style, and then, through its common acceptance and usage by other subcommunities in the country, maintains the power of the subcommunity concerned.

A prime example of this type of expansive process is linguistic sexism, which reflects preexisting male dominance in society and then, through its common usage by both sexes, contributes to the maintenance of male dominance. Other examples are linguistic racism and the language style of the legal profession, each of which, like linguistic sexism and the preeminence of the English language worldwide, has considerable impact on individuals and society at large.

Space precludes a full discussion of all five language—power relationships. Instead, some of them will warrant only a brief mention, whereas others will be presented in greater detail. The complexity of the language—power relations and their cross-disciplinary ramifications will be evident in the multiple sets of interrelated literatures that we cite from.

These include the social psychology of language and communication, critical language studies Fairclough, , sociolinguistics Kachru, , and conversation analysis Sacks et al. The message merely reveals the power of a weapon in their possession. Apart from revealing power, the gangsters may also cheat. As long as the message comes across as credible and convincing enough to arouse overwhelming fear, it would allow them to get away with their demands without actually possessing any weapon.

In this case, language is used to produce an intended effect despite resistance by deceptively revealing a nonexisting power base and planting it in the mind of the message recipient. The literature on linguistic deception illustrates the widespread deceptive use of language-reveals-power to produce intended effects despite resistance Robinson, Language communities in a country vary in absolute size overall and, just as important, a relative numeric concentration in particular regions.

Francophone Canadians, though fewer than Anglophone Canadians overall, are concentrated in Quebec to give them the power of numbers there. Similarly, ethnic minorities in mainland China have considerable power of numbers in those autonomous regions where they are concentrated, such as Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Another base of ethnolinguistic vitality is institutional representations of the language community in government, legislatures, education, religion, the media, and so forth, which afford its members institutional leadership, influence, and control.

The third base of ethnolinguistic vitality comprises sociohistorical and cultural status of the language community inside the nation and internationally. In short, the dominant language of a nation is one that comes from and reflects the high ethnolinguistic vitality of its language community. An important finding of ethnolinguistic vitality research is that it is perceived vitality, and not so much its objective demographic-institutional-cultural strengths, that influences language behavior in interpersonal and intergroup contexts.

Language, Culture and Identity  An Ethnolinguistic Perspective Language, Culture and Identity An Ethnolinguistic Perspective
Language, Culture and Identity  An Ethnolinguistic Perspective Language, Culture and Identity An Ethnolinguistic Perspective
Language, Culture and Identity  An Ethnolinguistic Perspective Language, Culture and Identity An Ethnolinguistic Perspective
Language, Culture and Identity  An Ethnolinguistic Perspective Language, Culture and Identity An Ethnolinguistic Perspective
Language, Culture and Identity  An Ethnolinguistic Perspective Language, Culture and Identity An Ethnolinguistic Perspective
Language, Culture and Identity  An Ethnolinguistic Perspective Language, Culture and Identity An Ethnolinguistic Perspective

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