Language: defining identity

In my previous post about language, I said that the ability to conceive and communicate complex thoughts is what sets humans apart from animals. I want to make it clear that I do not mean in any way that animals are stupid, on the contrary. However, seeing as they rely on instinct much more than we do — partly because we traded off instinct with learning — they are more radical in their behavior than us. Anybody who tried to calm down a scared cat or dog knows exactly what I mean. I hope this settles any doubts that readers might have had about my point of view.

I have already said that language is the foundation of human culture. It is, however, more than that. Language is one of the very few “inner traits” that define the different ethnic groups, that is traits not immediately visually discernible when seeing someone new. Everybody can tell if somebody has a similar ethnic background: Caucasian people look different than African people, or Asian people. Yet, while is it true that a Swedish will probably look different than an Italian, it will be virtually impossible to discern a Spanish and a Portuguese just by looking at them.

Groups defined by a common language

In such cases, and especially when populations mix due to varying borders over the course of history, language effectively define the identity of populations. Not surprising, many stereotypes are based on making fun of how a foreign language sounds and how immigrants speak the local language: in Italy, Asians are often mocked by replacing /r/ with /l/, an obvious reference to the Japanese liquid consonant. More often than not, this is done in good spirit, as is the inevitable attempt to have foreigners pronounce words that contain sounds that they are not familiar with. When in the UK, my group caused immense frustration in the activity leader who tried to pronounce “biglietto.” This is all usually done in good spirit today, yet in war times a similar technique has been used as a way to detect potential spies.

Sometimes, even in the modern day, a language is used as a common trait by a group and used to differentiate given group by others. Such is the case of Catalunya, which succeeded in having a top-level domain, .cat, to be made available for websites in Catalan. While this is not uncommon nowadays, with “content-based” top-level domains such as .museum and .aero, it is the first time that a language has been awarded one.

Another case for political unrest that is mostly visible through language is the current state of affairs in Belgium. The country is divided in two main parts: French-speaking Walloon and Dutch-speaking Flanders. The country has been struggling to have a strong government since 2007, and while there are deeper cultural and economic differences between the two areas, language is by all means the most prominent and immediate one.

In Northern Italy, homophobic, xenophobic and wannabe-secessionist political group Lega Nord insists that local dialects be taught in schools and used as official languages in public offices, also to mark a clear distinction between the North and the South of the country, and possibly to make it harder for immigrants to integrate, as they would have to pass a dialect test before being granted the permission to dwell in a given town.

It is interesting to note that immigrants from the same area of the world often tend to form clusters. Prime examples of these are the numerous “Chinatowns” and “Little Italy” neighborhoods. This happens not only to get the immediate support that derives from kinship; it is also a way to retain the group’s original culture. How long this lasts is debatable; it is a fact immigrants today are able to keep up with their origins more than immigrants could do just a few decades ago. To this day, respect for foreign cultures is more widespread, as is the ability to stay in touch with the motherland. Back in the day, it was not uncommon for second-generation immigrants to only have a basic knowledge of the family’s native language, even though the accent that came from their first-generation immigrant parents stayed for several more generations, and in some cases it became a distinguishing trait of the specific local group (see for instance the Brooklyn accent.) This kind of accent usually has a much stronger connotation of pride for its speakers compared to “standard” ones such as the Boston dialect.

In other cases, a social class might lay claim on its speech, slang and accent as a way to differentiate itself from the upper, “snob” classes; see for instance the Cockney speech.

Groups within a language

Group identity can, however, also be claimed within a language. Black people, for instance, have been historically referred to by white people using words that had a strong negative connotation, the most common of which is negro. While the origin of the word is not offensive by itself (it simply means “black” in Spanish), it started carrying a negative meaning by the way it was used. Moreover, as the word found its way to different languages and dialects, variations of it appeared; what is interesting is that today the more phonetic transcription nigger or nigga is considered somewhat more offensive than negro.

In any case, modern usage has led to unusual workarounds to be politically correct. Most non-blacks might use the phrase African-American, which of course only applies to black people born in the Americas. In the United Kingdom such phrase would make no sense, and consequently the word black is used without worry, in part because black slavery, or slavery of any groups for that matter, was not as widespread in the UK. (The situation in India, however, was quite different: the possessions of the East India Company was notably exempted from the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.) The race for political correctness in North America about the words used to refer to black people has been exploited for humorous purposes by many comedians, usually replacing black with African-American in unrelated phrases such as “black Friday.”

A very interesting aspect of ethnic and social groups targeted by offensive words is that, over the course of times, members of such groups take on the usage of the same words to refer to one another, in a linguistic phenomenon called reappropriation. This does not mean that the words is decontextualized and cleared for usage by anyone; on the contrary, those who do not belong to the group are discouraged even more from using it. In addition to the original offensive connotation, the now-reappropriated word carries the additional implication that the outsider is mocking both the group and the group’s usage of the word itself. Words that have been reappropriated include most racial and sexual slurs, but can also include words such as nerd or geek. In some cases, some words achieve enough “grammar strength” to be declined: for instance, the word guido (originally used to refer to working-class Italian immigrants in the NY area, from the first name Guido that was probably common at the time) has given birth to the female version guidette.

It is worth noting that members of one group are sometimes allowed to use reappropriated words belonging to other groups or even joking about them, without necessarily sparking harsh reactions from members of the “target” groups. This is clearly visible in Russell Peters’ stand-up comedy. Being the son of first-generation Indian immigrants in Canada, he defines himself as being brown and jokes about how different ethnic groups and their languages are perceived by one another, playing with and effectively demolishing common stereotypes. It is very likely that the same lines would cause controversy if they were uttered by a white man (especially those about Arabs), proving that linguistic reappropriation, and ultimately language, can change the way we relate to one another.