What role does ‘language’ play in notions of cultural and national identity in Britain? This essay will attempt to answer the above question by examining the importance of language in the formation, and then preservation, of nations, nationalisms, and the identities that exist within them. It will then go on to analyse the development of the dominant language of the United Kingdom, English, and how it has sought to position itself as central to notions of British identity.
This will be followed by a brief discussion on the nature of other languages within the UK and how they have dealt with the cultural hegemony of English and the standardisation of this language. The processes of differentiation involved in the patterns of language of Britain will then be considered, with reference to the assignment of certain social ‘locations’ during interaction. The essay will then go on to examine one particular grouping, British-Caribbeans, in order to provide an example of the way in which language can be central to identities.
First though it shall begin with a brief mention of some of the ways in which language can be defined. For Day (1998:151) languages, and other linguistically based practices of communication, represent vital tools in both our ability to organise social interaction, and in the processes by which we are able to identify different social groupings. Language can be used to join people in a multitude of social activities, but it can also demarcate various groups of people as being either the same as, or different from, others in any given society.
It is this method of categorisation involved in everyday communications that has been of interest in conversation analysis and ethnomethodology (ibid:152). However, the fact that language is deep rooted in so much of human behaviour means that identifying all of its functions is extremely difficult (Sapir, 1933). “… it may be suspected that there is little in the functional side of our conscious behaviour in which language does not play its part.
” (Sapir, cited in Downes, 1998:1) Due to this multitude of roles that language plays a part in, it is perhaps not surprising that the actual word ‘language’ is also used in many different ways. At the simplest level ‘language’ can be used as a word that refers to a set of skills. This can be taken as something that can be learnt as a subject in school, as children and even adults are taught how to read and write in English language lessons for instance.
These rules are part of the subject that must be learnt in order to gain appropriate qualifications or techniques, and so it can be said that someone is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at language depending on their attainments. Such rules also provide another use for the term ‘language’ in that it is not simply a school subject, but a set of grammatical laws containing tenses, nouns and verb structures (Downes, 1998:1). Grammar provides a certain structural element to language, and it is through this that communication and expressions of thought can take place.
However, in some cases it is thought that in order to adequately understand a place or a culture, the language must be known to some degree, and this connection is used when attempting to decipher practices that are far removed from simple grammar (ibid). In these cases our knowledge of a particular language is often said to aid our understanding of a cultural phenomenon such as a cricket match, in a way that cannot just be connected to the English grammar that may be involved in its description.
‘Language’ is also used in conjuncture with the aesthetic value of the sounds that it’s speaker’s produce. For Downes (ibid) many people hold strong opinions on the beauty or hideousness of the sound of particular groups when speaking. Languages and the different forms they take can be described as being ‘nasal’, ‘guttural’ or ‘sexy’. The term can also be used to refer to phenomenon that does not involve speech at all, such as body postures in the case of ‘body language’, and so in this case the word is used as a metaphor (ibid:2).
It is clear then that language can be described in a plethora of ways, but it perhaps Chomsky (1986:15) who offers the best definition. “Language is a set of very specific universal principles which are intrinsic properties of the human mind and part of our species’ genetic endowment. ” (Ibid) These specific principles of language are expressed throughout the world in a variety of ways, and it is this multitude of different languages, dialects and accents that are often linked to discussions on the nature of nations and nationality. For Tate (2005) “Language has a place in any imagining of the nation.
” (Ibid) The importance of language in the construction of national identity is seen by many social scientists as being key. Snyder (1976:21) suggests that when seeking political identities and security, people who have the same language are inevitably drawn together, whereas Edwards (1991:269) proposes that it is language that is still seen as the main component of ethnic groupings. For Billig (1995:17) the reproduction of nationhood is done not through individual acts, but through socio-historical processes, which language allows to be believed, communicated, imagined, and ultimately remembered.
Language therefore helps to shape ideologies, which in the case of nationalism can preserve nation-states, as well as create them. This preservation and creation of nation-states illustrates the centrality of language in the battle for hegemony, in that so often the formation of states has been accompanied by an official national language being recognised over others (ibid:27). Billig (ibid:31) argues that the very concept of ‘language’ that is recognised today is one that would not have necessarily developed without the idea of nation.
The peasant of millennia ago would not be able to imagine the linguistic boundaries that exist in contemporary times, but in travelling would simply pass along a continuum of comprehension. These boundaries of language are essentially a modern phenomenon that fit formally organised communication with the formal world of nations. “The disciplinary society of the nation-state needs the discipline of a common grammar. ” (Ibid) One such example of a nation-state that has sought to use language to define its national identity is the United Kingdom with English.