“Does language play a role in identity? […] This idea proposes that we can recognize our belonging to a unique community through a mirror that we hold up to each other. That mirror is a common language, the same for all, whose homogeneity becomes a guarantee of the existence of a collective identity.” (Charaudeau 2001, translated).
The debate around language and its importance was rekindled by the polemic which arose in Autumn 2021 from the President of Air Canada giving a speech only in English during his visit to Québec, a French-speaking province.
Over time, language has become a tool for building and asserting identity, thereby playing a role in promoting the culture and identity of a nation. This important role has led to public debates, notably in Québec where there is a progressive dominance of English over French. From a legal standpoint, the Chartre de la langue française (commonly called Loi 101, or Bill 101) enshrines French as the official language of the province of Québec. This reflects the role of language as a tool for asserting an identity. Through the preservation of French as the dominant language in the province, the advocates of this law are also indirectly aiming to preserve “the survival of the culture as well as loyalty to ancestors and to identity imperatives.” But how did language come to slowly take on this role of building and asserting identity? This second post aims to define some notions and concepts related to the notion of language being closely linked to identity.
Homogenize a Language to Homogenize a Culture
Through the process of homogenization, a vernacular language can be made into “the ideal place for social integration and linguistic acculturation, where the identity symbolism can be forged” (Charaudeau 2001, translated) thus allowing the construction of a national consciousness. But what do we mean by “vernacular” language? It is defined as a language or dialect that is spoken by a community within a set territory. Its counterpart is the vehicular language (or standard language) which is spoken by other communities outside of a single territory. It has many advantages over vernacular language, as it can serve as a lingua franca in geopolitical, governmental, or even economic fields.
For its part, homogenization is generally defined as a sociopolitical process put in place by a political elite to promote the uniformity of a nation’s culture and identity. Literature on nationalism has shown that the homogenization of a vernacular language is an important step in building a nation. For example, Benedict Anderson (2006)  highlighted the necessity of homogenizing language when trying to build an “imagined community.” This homogenization of language occurs through writing and printing (newspapers, books…). For Ernest Gellner, another reference, the homogenization of language and, to a greater degree, culture is synonymous with industrialization, namely the transition from an agrarian society to a modern capitalist one. It can notably occur through the promotion of education (high culture).
In short, the homogenization of a language leads to a uniformity of culture, which occurs through the imposition of significant changes from above, such as the suppression of cultural specificities. Language thereby becomes a factor in identity building, as it creates a feeling of belonging to a community or becomes the guarantee that this community is socially cohesive.
Languages, Its Uses and Identity
However, the relationship between language and identity is complex, as the issue of its usage needs to be taken into account (Charaudeau 2001). Indeed, the first question we can ask is: how do we present the difference between two official languages and their usage? In Manitoba for example, young people use both French (a minority language) and English in their daily lives, allowing for the creation of their own cultural identity and thereby promoting social cohesion, equality, and diversity (Lafontant 2002). The creation of this cultural, and linguistic, identity also applies to newly arrived immigrants in Québec that have to integrate one and sometimes two new linguistic identities into their daily lives. The concept of the “self” (cognitive element) is often used to explain how the social integration of new immigrants in Québec allows for the creation of a singular linguistic identity that can be integrated into “the self over time” (Amiot et de la Sablonnière 2008).
There are still many questions around the relationship between language and identity, notably cultural identity. In Québec for example, there is the issue of the choice between French and an Indigenous language, which leads to a debate around Indigenous cultural identities and whether it is possible to express them in French (Bradette 2018). For example, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine explores her relationship to Innu, her native language, and how it not only becomes a mode of expression, but also a tool of “co-language” resistance and thus the affirmation of her identity.
Minority Languages and Identity
Several debates are ongoing relating to the relationship between language and identity, notably the question of the sensitivity of an official language to the minority languages. This is the case of Catalan, a Romance language spoken by more than seven million people in the world, historically derived from indigenous use of vernacular Latin. Catalan has been at the core of cases presented before Spanish courts, aimed at ensuring its recognition in the political sphere, but also more importantly recognition as an identity. Indeed, the advocates of the Catalan language have relied on nationalist rhetoric, “which today plays a major role in Catalonia” (Boyer 2015).
Language and Identity in Post-Colonial Settings
In some territories or countries that had previously been colonized, such as Algeria, language can be perceived as a tool of domination both real and symbolic, with notable social and psychological effects. In that sense, adopting the “dominant” language is a way of extricating one’s self from a dominated group, shielding the individual from it but also creating a feeling of being torn away from it (Yacine 2001). Through this tearing away, the linguistic domination of the minority languages by the dominant language has a substantial effect on the identity of a population, but also on the possibility of building a collective national identity.
Lafontant, Jean « Langue et identité culturelle : points de vue des jeunes francophones du Manitoba ». Francophonies d’Amérique no 14 (2002) : 81–88. https://doi.org/10.7202/1005185ar
Relying on data from various surveys, this article aims to present the relationship between the use of one or more languages and the feeling of cultural belonging in the daily lives of youths in Manitoba.
Bradette, Marie-Ève « Langue française ou langue autochtone? Écriture et identité culturelle dans les littératures des Premières Nations ». Captures 3, no 1 (2018). https://doi.org/10.7202/1055834ar
The objective of this article is to address the “question of Indigenous cultural ideas” through a critical analysis of Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine’s texts, challenging the dominance of the French language and the notion of “autochthony.”
Yacine, Tassadit « Langues et domination. Statut social et/ou mélange des genres ». Études littéraires 33, no 3 (2001) : 65–74. https://doi.org/10.7202/501307ar
This article aims to show how language and its use as well as its power of representation can be perceived as a tool of domination similar to age, gender or economic heritage in post-colonial Algeria.
Boyer, Henri « Le catalan, entre linguistique et politique ». Sens public (2015). https://doi.org/10.7202/1040015ar
This article analyzes Catalan, its evolution and its importance in the last few years. For some years now, Catalan has been the subject of political, and notably nationalist, debates about its legal status, and is now perceived as a tool for institutional and identity-related demands.
Amiot, Catherine E. et de la Sablonnière, Roxane « Immigrants in Québec: Toward an Explanation of How Multiple and Potentially Conflictual Linguistic Identities Become Integrated ». Diversité urbaine (2008) : 145–161. https://doi.org/10.7202/019566ar
Using a theoretical model, this article aims to show how language and its use play a role in the construction of a new linguistic identity, especially for Québec immigrants involved in developing a concept of the “self.”
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised ed. édition. London ; New York: Verso, 2006.
Through a comparative study that covers realities ranging from Brazil to Thailand through Central Europe, this seminal book proposes an analysis of how certain factors, such as the emergence of capitalism or the printing press, allowed for the birth of “imagined communities,” i.e., the nations as we know them today.
Charaudeau, Patrick. « Langue, discours et identité culturelle ». Éla. Études de linguistique appliquée 123-124, no 3-4 (2001): 341-48. https://doi.org/10.3917/ela.123.0341.
Through the notion of “linguistic competency,” this article highlights the importance of language in the construction of identity, notably through discourse that brings forth the cultural baggage that a language carries.
Gellner, Ernest. “Nations et nationalismes”. Éditions Payot. Paris, 1989.
A seminal work in which the author retraces the genesis of nationalism, a key element in the birth of nations, notably through cultural and political homogenization.