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.

Continue reading