It is widely believed that there is a natural connection between the language spoken by members of a social group and that group's identity. By their accent, their vocabulary, their discourse patterns, speakers identify themselves and are identified as members of this or that speech and discourse community. From this membership, they draw personal strength and pride, as well as a
sense of social importance and historical continuity from using the same language as the group they belong to. But how to define which group one belongs to? In isolated, homogeneous communities like the Trobrianders studied by Malinowski, one may still define group membership according to common cultural practices and daily face-to-face interactions, but in modern, historically complex, open societies it is much more difficult to define the boundaries of any particular social group and the linguistic and cultural identities of its members.
Take ethnicity for example. In their 1981 survey conducted among the highly mixed population of Belize (formerly British Honduras), Le Page and Tabouret-Keller found out that different people ascribed themselves to different ethnicities as either 'Spanish', 'Creole', 'Maya' or 'Belizcan', according to which ethnic criterion they focused on – physical features (hair and skin), general appearance, genetic descent, provenance, or nationality. Rarely was language used as an ethnically defining criterion. Interestingly, it was only under the threat of a Guatemalan takeover as soon as British rule would cease, that the sense of a Belizean national identity slowly started emerging from among the multiple ethnic ascriptions that people still give themselves to this day.
Group identity based on race would seem easier to define, and yet there are almost as many genetic differences, say, between members of the same White, or Black race as there are between the classically described human races, not to speak of the difficulty in some cases of ascertaining with 100 per cent exactitude a person's racial lineage. For example, in 1983 the South African Government changed the racial classification of 690 people: two-thirds of these, who had been Coloreds, became Whites, 71 who had been Blacks became Coloreds, and 11 Whites were redistributed among other racial groups! And, of course, there is no necessary correlation between a given racial characteristic and the use of a given language or variety of language.
Regional identity is equally contestable. As reported in the London Times of February 1984, when a Soviet book, Populations of the World, claimed that the population of France consisted of 'French, Alsatians, Flemings, Bretons, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans, Jews, Armenians, Gypsies and "others'", Georges Marchais, the French Communist leader, violently disagreed: 'For us', he said, 'every man and woman of French nationality is French. France is not a multinational state: it is one nation, the product of a long history ....'
One would think that national identity is a clear-cut either/or affair (either you are or you are not a citizen), but it is one thing, for example, to have a Turkish passport, another thing to ascribe to yourself a Turkish national identity if you were born, raised and educated, say, in Germany, are a native speaker of German, and happen to have Turkish parents.
Despite the entrenched belief in the one language = one culture equation, individuals assume several collective identities that are likely not only to change over time in dialogue with others, but are liable to be in conflict with one another. For example, an immigrant's sense of self, that was linked in his country of origin perhaps to his social class, his political views, or his economic status, becomes, in the new country, overwhelmingly linked to his national citizenship or his religion, for this is the identity that is imposed on him by others, who see in him now, for example, only a Turk or a Muslim. His own sense of self, or cultural identity, changes accordingly. Out of nostalgia for the 'old country', he may tend to become more Turkish than the Turks and entertain what Benedict Anderson has called 'long distance nationalism'. The Turkish he speaks may become with the passing of years somewhat different from the Turkish spoken today in the streets of Ankara; the community he used to belong to is now more an 'imagined community' than the actual present-day Turkey.
The problem lies in equating the racial, ethnic, national identity imposed on an individual by the state's bureaucratic system, and that individual's self-ascription. Group identity is not a natural fact, but a cultural perception, to use the metaphor with which we started this book. Our perception of someone's social identity is very much culturally determined. What we perceive about a person's culture and language is what we have been conditioned by our own culture to see, and the stereotypical models already built around our own. Group identity is a question of focusing and diffusion of ethnic, racial, national concepts or stereotypes. Let us take an example. Le Page and Tabouret-Keller recount the case of a man in Singapore who claimed that he would never have any difficulty in telling the difference between an Indian and a Chinese.
But how would he instantly know that the dark-skinned non-Malay person he saw en the street was an Indian (and not, say, a Pakistani), and that the light-skinned non-European was a Chinese (and not, say, a Korean), unless he differentiated the two according to the official Singaporean 'ethnic' categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others? In another context with different racial classifications he might have interpreted differently the visual clues presented to him by people on the street. His impression was focused by the classificatory concepts prevalent in his society, a behavior that Benjamin Whorf would have predicted. In turn this focus may prompt him, by a phenomenon of diffusion, to identify all other 'Chinese' along the same ethnic categories, according to the stereotype 'All Chinese look alike to me'.
It has to be noted that societies impose racial and ethnic categories only on certain groups: Whites do not generally identify themselves by the color of their skin, but by their provenance or nationality. They would find it ludicrous to draw their sense of cultural identity from their membership in the White race. Hence the rather startled reaction of two Danish women in the United States to a young African-American boy, who, overhearing their conversation in Danish, asked them 'What's your culture?'. Seeing how perplexed they were, he explained with a smile 'See, I'm Black. That's my culture. What's yours?'. Laughingly they answered that they spoke Danish and came from Denmark. Interestingly, the boy did not use language as a criterion of group identity, but the Danes did.
European identities have traditionally been built much more around language and national citizenship, and around folk models of 'one nation = one language', than around ethnicity or race. But even in Europe the matter is not so simple. For example, Alsatians who speak German, French and Germanic Platt may alternatively consider themselves as primarily Alsatians, or French, or German, depending on how they position themselves vis--vis the history of their region and their family biography. A youngster born and raised in France of Algerian parents may, even though he speaks only French, call himself Algerian in France, but when abroad he might prefer to be seen as French, depending on which group he wishes to be identified with at the time.
Examples from other parts of the world show how complex the language-cultural identity relationship really is. The Chinese, for example, identify themselves ethnically as Chinese even though they speak languages or dialects which are mutually unintelligible. Despite the fact that a large number of Chinese don't know how to read and write, it is the Chinese character-writing system and the art of calligraphy that are the major factors of an overall Chinese group identity.
A further example of the difficulty of equating one language with one ethnic group is given by the case of the Sikhs in Britain. Threatened to lose public recognition of their cultural and religious distinctiveness, for example, the wearing of the Sikh turban in schools, Sikh religious leaders have tried to bolster the group's identity by promoting the teaching of Punjabi, endogamy, and patterns of behavior felt to be central to Sikhism, including hair styles and the wearing of turbans. However, seen objectively, neither the Punjabi language nor the wearing of turbans is peculiar to Sikhism either in India or Pakistan or Britain.