In 1915, Edmond Laforest, a prominent Haitian writer, stood upon a bridge, tied a French Larousse dictionary around his neck, and leapt to his death. This symbolic, if fatal, grand gesture dramatizes the relation of language and cultural identity. Henry Lous Gates, who recounts this story, adds “While other black writers, before and after Laforest, have been drowned artistically by the weight of various modern languages, Laforest chose to make his death an emblem of this relation of overwhelming indenture”.
It is widely believed that there is a natural connection between the language spoken by members of social group and that group’s identity. By their accent, their vocabulary, their discourse patterns, speakers identify themselves and are identified as members of this or that speech and discourse community. From this membership, they draw personal strength and pride, as well as a sense of social importance and historical continuity from using the same language as the group they belong to.
But how to define which group one belongs to? In isolated, homogeneous communities one may still define group membership according to common cultural practices and daily face-to-face interactions. But in modern, historically complex, open societies it is much more difficult to define the boundaries of any particular social group and the linguistic and cultural identities of its members.
Take ethnicity for example. In 1982 survey conducted among the highly mixed population of Belize (former British Honduras) it was found out that different people ascribed themselves to different ethnicities as either Spanish, Creole, Maya or Belizean, according to which ethnic criterion they focused on – physical features (hair and skin), general appearance, genetic descent, provenance, or nationality. Rarely was language used as an ethnically defining criterion. Interestingly, it was only under the threat of a Guatemalan takeover as soon as British rule would cease, that the sense of a Belizean national identity slowly started emerging from among the multiple ethnic ascriptions that people still give themselves to this day.
Group identity based on race would seem easier to define, and yet there are almost as many genetic differences, say, between members of the same White, or Black race as there are between the classically described human races, not to speak of the difficulty in some cases of ascertaining with 100% exactitude a person’s racial lineage. For example, in 1983 the South African government changed the racial classification of 690 people: 2/3 of these, who had been Coloreds, became Whites, 71 who had been Blacks became Coloreds, and 11 Whites were redistributed among other racial groups. And, of course, there is no necessary correlation between a given racial characteristic and the use of a given language or variety of language.
Regional identity is equally contestable. As reported in the London Times of February 1984, when a Soviet book, Populations of the World, claimed that the population of France consisted of French, Alsatians, Flemings, Bretons, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans, Jews, Armenians, Gypsies and others, George Marchais, the French Communist leader, violently disagreed that for them every man and woman of French nationality is French, France is not a multinational state, it is one nation, the product of a long history.
One would think that national identity is a clear cut either/or affair (either you are or you are not a citizen), but it is one thing to have a Turkish passport, another thing to ascribe yourself to a Turkish national identity if you were born, raised and educated in Germany, a native speaker of German, and happen to have Turkish parents.
Despite the entrenched belief in the one language=one culture equation, individuals assume several collective identities that are likely not only to change over time in dialogue with others, but are liable to be in conflict with one another. For example, an immigrant’s sense of self, that was linked in his country of origin to his social class, his political views, or his economic status, becomes, in the new country, overwhelmingly linked to his national citizenship or his religion, for this is the identity that is imposed on him by others, who see in him now, for example, only a Turk or a Muslim. His own sense of self , or cultural identity, changes accordingly. Out of nostalgia for the “old country”, he may tend to become more Turkish than the Turks and entertain what Benedict Anderson has called “long distance nationalism”. The Turkish he speaks may become with the passing of years somewhat different from the Turkish spoken today in the streets of Ankara; the community he used to belong to is now more an “imagined community” than the actual present-day Turkey.