Language & identity

Which language you speak, how you sound while speaking that language, as well as how well you speak it are all factors that people take into account when assessing your status, your intellectuality, and your credibility. Especially for non-native speakers of a language is this the case, but also for speakers of a non-standard variety of their own language, as well as for people coming from abroad who do not know the host country’s language.

Let’s take myself as an example. I grew up in the South East of Holland, speaking a dialect, and till this day Dutch people can still easily pinpoint where I originally grew up. Despite living on the other side of the country for the past 8 years, I have not managed to get rid of my Dutch version of the ‘Southern drawl’: soft ‘g’ (zachte ‘g’). The annoying thing however is, that I cannot speak the dialect for the life of me, yet my Dutch is ‘tainted’ by the place I grew up. I still spit out the occasional linguistic oddity in Dutch, but I’ve managed to mostly ‘shift’ towards a much more standard version of Dutch. People who know me or have heard me talk may disagree with that statement, but that’s because that soft ‘g’ is all it takes for me to be deemed: ‘that Southern girl’. In fact, it’s gotten to a point where my family is telling me that I don’t sound ‘Southern enough’ anymore, while when I’m home I get told I don’t sound ‘Dutch enough’ either. It’s like I’m stuck in the middle and that gets kind of frustrating from time to time.

See, the thing is: the accent you have and which language variety you speak, says something about who you are or at least about who you think you are or about who you would like to be. Your accent is a mirror of you identity. This could explain why I have held on to my soft ‘g’ for some time now. That soft ‘g’ is part of who I am and I’m not getting rid of it. Which is funny because I don’t see myself strictly as coming from Brabant (the area I grew up in), nor do I strictly consider myself to be Dutch, nor do I deem myself to be European. I would put myself into the ‘global citizen’ category. So I started asking myself a few questions: why it is that I still have my soft ‘g’? Why do people speak the way they do? And why are some varieties ‘better’ than others?

I have not yet found a conclusive answer to these questions, but here’s some suggestions:

  1. I still have my soft ‘g’ because deep down inside I DO feel like I belong in Brabant, but I just haven’t realized it yet.
  2. I have clung to my accent because it was all I new and the only way I knew how to deal with my new situation.
  3. I have clung to my accent to distinguish myself from others in the new situation I came into when I moved 8 years ago.
  4. My accent has been a part of me for such a long time that I had difficulty acquiring a new sound system.
  5. People speak the way they do so they can distinguish themselves from others. (think of youngsters trying to sound all cool and devising their own lingo)
  6. People speak a certain way because it is all that is left of their culture (think of immigrants or indigenous peoples in places that were settled by foreigners)
  7. People speak a dialect because they have been isolated and not have come into contact with other dialects/ language groups.
  8. Older people speak differently from younger people.
  9. Women’s speech differs from men’s speech. (not only the way they use language is different, but also the way they speak it & perceive it).
  10. People change the variety of language per situation to cater to other speaker’s needs. (my mom speaks differently on the phone to our family doctor than to my dad for instance).
  11. No variety is better than others, at least not linguistically.
  12. The only reason why one variety is preferred over another is because the majority (or the elite or any other prestige group for that matter) speaks it.
  13. People prefer one variety over others, because it is easier to communicate if everybody speaks the same variety.
  14. One variety is deemed better so not everybody can be deemed as ‘equal’. (Some linguists claim that discrimination on language will be the last hurdle to equal rights for everybody).

All these statements above are things I found out  about in the past couple of years during classes in socio-linguistics, writing my Master’s thesis for English, or just by reading news articles.

There is a lot of prejudice against people who speak differently. It goes for people who are non-native speakers of a language, people like myself who speak a non-standard variety, but for people who speak a completely different language in a society (Spanish speakers in the US, Punjabi speakers in the UK, Turkish speakers in the Netherlands & Germany, etc.) it is even harder to ‘fit the norm’. They speak a completely different language and yet governments try to push them into a system that they could never even fit into without defying everything they are. The problem is that language is not only part of an individual’s identity, it is also a major factor to establish one’s culture. This does not hold for all groups of peoples in the world, but for most it does. Now, especially in Holland, under influence of Dutch politician Geert Wilders, people very easily say that “all those foreigners should just go home if they don’t want to be Dutch”.

But what if we’d reverse the roles? No one told the Dutch in the 17th century that they couldn’t speak Dutch and practice their culture when they first settled in the US (or elsewhere in the world). In fact, if they HADN’T held on to their language, there would be no Holland, Michigan. A town that is almost more Dutch than the Dutch themselves. Without Dutch settlers being able to speak Dutch, there would be no words like: cookie, dollar, Santaclaus, Yankee, coleslaw, easel, landscape, steer board, mast, dock, bay, yacht and also (though we should NOT be proud of it) apartheid. All those are Dutch loanwords into English. Many of those words have to do with painting & ships, because that’s what we were good at in the 17th century. Without the Dutch speaking Dutch and practicing their culture abroad the VOC (East India Trading Company) would never have existed and it would never have gone on to become one of the first corporations in the world. Without the Dutch being allowed to be Dutch the American Declaration of Independence as well as the American Constitution would never have been written, since those documents are both partly based on the principles of the Dutch Republic of the late 16th century.

What I’m trying to say is, especially looking at my own situation and regarding the books, articles and information I’ve read on this topic, that all this focus on the differences of how people speak can actually be quite tiring as well as unnecessary. I’m not even going into all the red tape involved with language policies across the globe. If you can understand each other, isn’t that enough? Perhaps if we try a little harder and be bit more understanding towards people who speak differently, we could try to make this world a better place.

Source for the pictures: cartoonstock, silverspeech, vital speech consultants.

3 responses to “Language & identity”

  1. I can only imagine how awful my Dutch would sound.

    As for all the Dutch/American stuff – this happens all the time, we all borrow from each others languages (some more than others) and culture so in a sense, no-one is strictly Dutch/American/English/German.

    I think the UK is rather bad at other languages – we aren’t around them enough to gain experience in them, get used to hearing them.

    What annoys me is when English people protest is disgust saying “Why can’t they speak English to each other, I can’t understand what they’re saying – they could be talking about me and I wouldn’t even know!” First of all – stop being paranoid and second of all if you were in their country, you’d still talk to me in English because it’s easier! DUH!

    Although I understand why this is all very frustrating for you, I have to say I’m interested in this red tape you speak of.

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