Language and identity

One of the most important functions of language is that it allows us to manage our presentation of self and our identities. In the same way that we can, for example, utilise different items of clothing in order to create unique presentations of self, we can also employ a whole range of linguistic resources.  Whereas early quantitative sociolinguistic studies, such as Labov (1966) or Trudgill (1974) understood a speaker’s sociodemographic characteristics (i.e. their gender, age, socioeconomic class or ethnicity) to be the cause of their linguistic practice, contemporary research understands language practice to be constitutive of our social identities. This means that rather than presuming that because I am a woman I will speak in a certain way; we can say that I am perceived to be a woman (in part) due to the way I speak (Cameron 1997). This understanding of the relationship between language and social identities is in keeping with Judith Butler’s (1990) influential theorising about the nature of gender. Butler (1990) argues that there is nothing behind the expression of gender identities other than the performative enactment of such identities.  This has led scholars in sociolinguistics, such as Bucholtz and Hall (2005) to suggest that identities are the emergent products of interactions, something which we construct using linguistic and non-linguistic social practices.

If social identities are simply something that we ‘do’, does this mean that we come to each interaction as a blank slate; that we can performatively enact any social identity we want? In short, the answer is: no. Sociolinguists are keen to illuminate the constraints which govern the ways we can use language to performatively enact identities, and the constraints which govern which identity performances are understood as intelligible.  Utilising theories such as Elinor Ochs’ (1992) work on indexicality, sociolinguists suggest that there must be an already existing ideological link between a linguistic feature and a social identity before a speaker is able to use the feature to help construct a specific social identity. For example, Bucholtz (1999a) shows how a white, male, American high school student uses features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in order to present a specific type of cool, white, urban masculinity. This presentation of self is possible due to the already existing ideological link between black masculinity and ‘urban coolness’.  This meant that by using a number of features of AAVE in his own speech, the white speaker was able to create a unique type of white masculinity.

A growing body of research has shown that individual speakers are able to use language in order to construct multidimensional understandings of the self. For example, Podesva (2007) shows that a gay, American doctor varied his use of the non-modal phonation type falsetto, in order to construct a number of different context dependent personae, ranging from a ‘gay diva’ to a ‘caring doctor’. Levon (2016) explores how an Orthodox Jewish man utilises the non-modal phonation type creaky voice, at points in an interview where there are conflicts between his religious identifications (as an Orthodox Jew) and his sexual orientations (as a married man who engages in acts of homosexual sex). In both these examples, we see speakers using phonation types in order to negotiate, and realise multiple aspects of their identities. As well as looking at how individuals can use language to create multidimensional selves, sociolinguists have also examined how groups of speakers can use language in order to differentiate themselves from other groups.  Moore (2004) looked at the language practices of two communities of girls in an English high school, the townies and the populars, finding that both groups strategically varied their use of the same non-standard morphosyntactic forms (such as tag-questions) in order to differentiate from one another. Bucholtz (1999b) also investigated the linguistic practices of a high school students, finding that a community of nerd girls told specific types of stories to help construct themselves as nerds. One of the girls told a story with a scatological subject matter which helped her to distance herself from traditional femininity, and present a nerd girl persona.  

The examples discussed here show that as speakers we are able to use language in a number of different ways in order to do identity work, whether it be telling stories, varying our use of specific variables, or using linguistic forms typically associated with another group. This list is by no means exhaustive, and sociolinguists are continually discovering new and innovative ways which challenge and expand our knowledge of the relationship between language and social identities.  My own research seeks to demonstrate how women can use language to present themselves as mothers during the transition from late pregnancy to early motherhood, and I hope that my research will make a useful contribution to this fascinating field.


Bucholtz, Mary and Kira Hall. 2005. Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies 7(4-5): 585-614.

Bucholtz, Mary. 1999a. You da man: Narrating the racial other in the production of white masculinity. Journal of Sociolinguistics 3: 443–460.

Bucholtz, Mary. 1999b. “Why be normal?” Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls. Language in Society 28(2):203-223.

Butler, Judith. 1990.  Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York & London: Routledge.

Cameron, Deborah. 1997. Performing gender identity: Young men’s talk and the construction of heterosexual masculinity. In Sally Johnson and Ulrike Hanna Meinhof (eds.) Language and masculinity, 47-64. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, William. 1966. The social stratification of English in New York. Washington D.C: Centre for Applied Linguistics.

Levon, Erez. 2016. Conflicted selves: Language, sexuality and religion in Israel. In Erez Levon and Ronald Mendes (eds.) Language, sexuality and power: Studies in intersectional sociolinguistics, 215-239. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Emma. 2004. Sociolinguistic style: A multidimensional resource for shared identity creation. The Canadian Journal of Linguistics/ La revue Canadienne de Linguistique 49(3): 375-396.

Ochs, Elinor.1992. Indexing Gender. In Alessandro Duranti and Charles Goodwin. (eds.) Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon, 336-359. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Podesva, Robert J. 2007. Phonation type as a stylistic variable: The use of falsetto in constructing a persona. Journal of Sociolinguistics 11: 478-504.

Trudgill, Peter. 1974. The social differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kate is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on language as a marker of identity in motherhood.

One thought on “Language and identity

  1. People who master language use are respected by people of all walks of life. It is for this reason that all departments of the society have communication units: politicians have spokespersons who help them to canvass for votes; business people need language experts as advertisers to enable them sell their goods and services; and heads of families need language to manage properly their homes.
    It is important to note that it does not suffice for a language user to master the grammar of a language in order to be considered as competent. They need to know when?, how?, where?, and to whom? to use the linguistic structures concerned in order to be effective in their communication. This is because each linguistic community has norms which must be respected whenever language is used. These norms vary from society to society. Whenever any of these norms are violated, there is breakdown in communication.
    On the news we get announcements of terrorist acts which are perpetrated because of certain writings or utterances that have been published. Care must be taken whenever we are called upon to use language. Note that your language identifies who you are (in terms of your educational background, your status, and your upbringing). By Julius Suh Ayancho, linguistics consultant


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