The Language of Identity

By Jackie Carreira, UK

There is a saying that states, ‘As a bird is known by its song, so is a human by their conversation’. What does this mean? How conscious are we of our own conversations? And why would it matter anyway..?

As an upfront indicator of a person’s identity, language and its usage is difficult to ignore. Just look at how important it was in the transformation of Eliza Doolittle from urchin to lady in the story of ‘Pygmalion’ (or ‘My Fair Lady’ for the film buffs). We can easily change clothes, cut our hair or even change our names to adopt a new identity, but changing the way we talk not only requires a great deal of effort, but it also speaks volumes about ourselves and where we come from.

The first indicator is the specific language that we speak – English, German, Swahili, etc., coupled with the accent or dialect that it is spoken through. These dialects are so specific that a skilled linguist can tell not only which town or city a person comes from, but even whether they grew up on the North or South side. Why is this? Why don’t all English people speak with the same accent? The clue is in the nature of the land itself. It is no coincidence that British people who live in areas where the landscape is soft or flat use rounder vowel sounds, for example Norfolk or Somerset. In the mountainous areas, like Scotland or North Wales, the sounds have sharper peaks and troughs, just like the land.

There are examples all over the world where the same language changes enormously depending on which part of the globe it is spoken. For example, English in Australia or America or South Africa sounds like a totally different language.

The clue is in the word itself: ‘Language’ is in fact a ‘Lan(d)-gauge’, offering those who care to search a bit deeper, many hints as to the nature of the place where the language or dialect lives. This not only affects us while we grow up and learn to speak, but if we move to a different place we even start to become naturalised to it in the way that we speak. Just ask an Englishman who has lived in New York for twenty years.

This may seem an obvious clue to our identity, and is an important but external influence. Of course, we can change and refine our accents with training or elocution, and some people are naturally talented at mimicking the accents of different places, but there is a deeper identity indicator which is not so easy to fake, and that is our language usage.

We have an impulse to communicate almost as soon as we’re born. First we learn, from necessity, the words that are most important to us: ‘food’, ‘juice’, ‘pee-pee’, etc. Each word is significant because we need to express what we want to say precisely. But it is once we have learnt the basics and completed our formal education that language ceases to become predominantly an external influence and, instead, becomes a selective identity choice – whether we are aware of this or not. It is also at this point that precision surprisingly seems to become less important.

Today, the average person has a vocabulary of around ten thousand words. However, most people only use around one thousand five hundred of these regularly, and this number has been shrinking in the last few years, despite greater access to education than ever. The philosopher, Wittgenstein, once said: “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

Speech through human history has become the primary vehicle for communicating who we are and what we feel, and therefore the quality and depth of the expression of ourselves depends greatly on the way it is voiced. Although speech is not the only vehicle for human expression, it is nevertheless a vital one. Imagine what it would be like to be the only person on the planet who spoke a particular language. There would be no-one to relate experiences to, or to ask questions of. The loneliness would be hard to take. Yet we limit ourselves constantly by the way we use language. Even those who cannot speak place great importance on the use of sign language.

Words are designed to express thoughts and feelings exactly – if we know how to use them. A dazzling sunset can be ‘nice’ or ‘magnificent’. It all depends on how accurately a person chooses to clothe what they really feel, and this determines the distance between the inside of a person and the identity on the outside. Why do we choose the words we do? Do we consider what we want to cause before we open our mouths?

The development of a person’s conversation takes time and effort, but even if one learnt a new word every day, there would be enough to keep going for a lifetime. And if the dictionary runs out of words to express what is really felt, there is always the option of inventing new ones, just as Shakespeare did. How did we ever describe a ‘glow’ before he invented the word?
Words are like chameleons which reflect the colour of the speaker. You might wish to look at what you say and why you say it, then perhaps ask yourself: Is this who I really want to be? What do I really want to say?

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