The role of language in the formation, reproduction and promotion of cultural and social identities
According to structuralist and post-structuralist theories, identities are relational, and as such they are formed and shaped through communicative processes. In order to communicate, we need a common system of signs that can be understood by every member of the group, in everyday speech referred to as “language”. Although it is certainly true to say that language forms, reproduces and promotes identity, it must not be forgotten that identities are plural, intersect, interact and enter into conflict with each other, and language identity is no exception to this. Consequently, the relationship between language and identity, when taking a closer look at it, involves many different considerations and is not as clear-cut as one might anticipate.
For a long time, sociolinguists have stressed the importance of language (including written, spoken and body language as well as other symbols and signs) in the formation of national identities (i.e. the people´s identification with “their” nation, based usually on territory, history, religion, culture and language), on the one hand being on of the factors considered to form identities and, on the other hand, serving as a medium for other factors involved. In Europe, there are currently 77 autochthonous European languages, eight other languages confined to Europe and nine diaspora dialects. Depending on the source, there are approximately 48 countries in Europe (the number varies due to questions such as if Turkey is to be included in Europe or in Asia). Nowadays, many languages, such as English, French or German, are transnational, i.e. spoken in more than one country, while approximately a third of the European countries (e.g. Belgium, Switzerland) have two or more official languages. Thus, linguistic barriers do not necessarily coincide with political barriers.
Up to the late 19th century, notions such as “official language” were virtually unknown and the formation of many nation-states was only in its beginnings. Italy, for instance, mainly consisted of a range of city-states before its unification in 1860, but Italian was only officially standardized during the 1950s. This linguistic assimilation was, nevertheless, a key factor of nation-building, since it was believed that a common language, alongside a dominant ethnic group, legitimized the existence of a state. If, as stated by Cristina Chimisso (2003),
“cultural identities have to be learned, performed
it goes without saying that first of all they have to be taught. To a certain extent, identities are formed at home and through social interactions, but, especially as far as national identity is concerned, a significant role was played by formal schooling. National identity was thus created as a Project Identity (Manuel Castells, 1997), i.e. the attempt to create a new identity and to transform society, in this case by producing national awareness and consequently identification with the nation-state. The most obvious component is logically the teaching of the “national”, standardized language, in particular in countries with a broad linguistic variety, such as pre-1800 France. By having a common language, a unity was formed, including those who spoke it and those who did not. This was, and is, supported by the teaching of literature in the assimilated language in order to show (although not always accurately) its long history, creating the sensation of unity of the speakers and legitimacy of the language and nation. In this aspect, language, in a very general sense, primarily serves to separate distinct nation-states.
Nevertheless, if it were true that language has such a strong direct impact on national or sub-national identities, it would imply that there could be no national identity in Switzerland due to the existence of four simultaneous official languages, and that the whole of Latin America (with the exception of Brazil) would “feel Spanish”, and this is certainly not the case. Language is not, and cannot be the sole component in the formation and promotion of identities, and we can see how schools also create awareness of other key factors. Considering that national identity is the people´s identification with “their” nation, students have to be able to identify this nation and know how and why it is different from others, taught in subjects such as Geography, History and others focusing on culture. Special attention should be drawn here to History and the way it is transmitted by language. In order for cultural identity to exist, the past has to be passed on, but by the very way of doing so, it is altered. A true, authentic and exact account of World War II, for instance, would take six years if nothing were to be omitted, so that the accounts that are given (especially in school textbooks) are a subjective selection of events that can be used to promote the aspects of the past in order to shape national identity as desired.
Another important role of language can be seen when we consider minority (and non-official) languages (although in Europe, nowadays, they are only prohibited and persecuted in Turkey and Greece). In Spain, there are four official languages, but only one is spoken in all of Spain (Castilian), while the other three (Catalan, Basque and Galician, alongside non-official languages such as Asturian or Aragonese) are regional languages spoken by only a small part of the population (Catalan being the largest with app.17%). This clearly shows the consequences of the first steps of nation-building: