What Else Can a Language Say?

Previously, I have argued that language is a useful barometer for group identity, using the example of German in the film Die Hard. Language communicates more than what is explicitly coded in words and sentences – the act of speaking a certain language gives information about the speaker herself. To use an innocuous example, accents can easily tell us whether a person is from the southern U.S. or from the U.K. Language can also communicate our status to others – speaking English in a developed country is often seen as a sign of wealth, just as the knowledge of Latin in Europe in the Middle Ages signified that one was a part of the priesthood or the aristocracy.

On the level of group politics, language can be a powerful force in binding together a community. Nationalist sentiments can be thought of as invoking an “imagined community”, to borrow a term from Benedict Anderson. These communities are imagined in the sense that they are large and dispersed, but the act of imagining often is accompanied by a concrete wish for state-formation. It is meaningful that these political wishes are often voiced in a language that the group strongly identifies with. Examples of this include Catalan in Spain and French among Canadians; language is a reminder of common cultural and historical practices.

We need to remind ourselves that the medium of the message is often just as important as the message itself. This is true not only of politics but of information technology more generally. The Internet has not just increased the amount of communication going on, but it has actively shaped what it is that is communicated. What we say is inextricably linked with how we choose to say it, whether we want to lead a separatist group or simply wish to let our friends know what we had for lunch.

-dp

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~ by danplechaty on January 8, 2010.

One Response to “What Else Can a Language Say?”

  1. […] Status: It’s Complicated Dan tossed me an easy pitch (and he knows it). His last post begs me to discuss Belgium as an extraordinary example of how language issues manifest in identity […]

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