Language, Identity and Representation in Popular Culture

identityangle Identity, whether it is on an individual, social or institutional level, is something which we are constantly adjusting and negotiating all our lives through our interaction with others. And, as Thornborrow (2004: 158) states “[o]ne of the most fundamental ways we have of establishing our identity […] is through the use of our language.” Because of this close relationship between identity and language use as a marker of identity, we can speak of a so-called ‘linguistic identity‘, i.e. the ways in which language is used (consciously or not) to indicate how we categorize ourselves as belonging to a particular social group. However, identity is very clearly multifaceted; we switch into different roles at different times in different situations, which means that we are also very likely to switch the way we communicate depending on the type of identity we want to express.

With this in mind, it is highly relevant that the media have become such a pervasive element in our (postmodern, western) culture with the capacity to influence our behavior on a number of levels, one of which being language use. The received view in sociolinguistics is that the media can improve our awareness of different language varieties and it can exert some limited influence on our language, but mostly on the level of conscious choices (for example vocabulary). However, a growing number of researchers are questioning this claim. Since the media is the channel most people use for entertainment, and considering the raised level of engagement most people have with the media (through, for example, on demand TV, streaming videos, readily available DVDs of almost every film and program, etc.), the language we are submitted to through our entertainment choices has a potentially tremendous effect on us.

In this notion of linguistic identity, it is also important to consider the role of representation, i.e. how the linguistic identities of individuals and social groups are constructed and conveyed in everyday, face-to-face situations but also how these identities are mediated through popular culture. This process has several interesting variables – in one sense, on an individual level, representation can be understood as face or public self-image. On a supra-individual level, it can also be understood as the way a group (a so-called in-group) chooses to mark or identify itself linguistically or it can be the ways in which people outside the group (a so-called out-group) choose to represent the group linguistically. Interesting questions and situations arise in this area such as who ‘owns’ the group identity and who has the right to represent it? Is the representation authentic and credible or does it rely on stereotypes and cliches which can promote or reinforce ways of thinking about ethnicity, gender, religion, race, nationality, etc?

Recommended readings:

  • Alim, H. S. (2006). Roc the mic right: the language of hip hop culture. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Alim, H. S., Ibrahim, A. & Pennycook, A. (eds.) (2009) Global linguistic flows: hip hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Baker, P. (2002). Polari– the lost language of gay men. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Dalzell, T. (2010). Flappers 2 rappers: American youth slang (Dover ed.). Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications
  • Eckert, P. (1989). Jocks and burnouts: social categories and identity in the high school. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Gelder, K. (ed.) (2005). The subcultures reader. (2nd ed.). London & New York: Routledge.
  • Greenberg, A. (2007). Youth subcultures: exploring underground America. New York: Pearson Longman.
  • Hebdige, D. (1991). Subculture: the meaning of style. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Muggleton, D. (2000). Inside subculture: the postmodern meaning of style. Oxford: Berg.
  • Said, E. W. (1979). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Savage, J. (2008). Teenage: the prehistory of youth culture, 1875-1945. New York: Penguin.
  • Walshe, S. (2009). Irish English as represented in film. Frankfurt am Main: P. Lang.
  • Widdicombe S. & Wooffitt, R. (1995). The language of youth subcultures: social identity in action. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Some relevant/interesting/funny videos and illustrations of Linguistic Identity:         (please note that all links open in a new window/tab)

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