The Role of Language in Identity Formation

H22 A contribution to the SIPCATS Discussion Forum

Azize Güneş, MA Student in Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University, Research Assistant, SIPCATS

In one of the two books referred to in the invitation to the present discussion, Historiography and Nation-Building among Turkic Populations (2014), the role of language in nation-building and identity formation was examined from different aspects. On the one hand, the authors looked at intentionally created products by the state, such as laws, official policies, national ceremonies and public speeches, as well as dictionaries and national history books, all of which could be considered to offer public options for identity formation. On the other hand, individual and collective language use was treated by the same authors, giving an idea of how language is involved in identity formation at a personal level. In this context, notions such as memory, narrativity and performativity were brought up. Rereading the chapters, I began to wonder about the relationship between these notions and their involvement in the formation, maintenance and rejection of social and national identities.

In a chapter titled “Image and Influence: The Politics of Nation-Branding in Uzbekistan”, Anita Sengupta writes that “[l]anguage is the basis for most performative acts” (p. 98). By creating a unified cultural image of language or “[t]hrough the ‘making’ of the language, the state acts as an agent of influence and control not just on performative traditions and their norms but also on the creation of a single linguistic community as the basis for the nation.” (p.98) In this chapter about national and international branding of states and the creation of signs in the public sphere, Sengupta states that commercial branding techniques are used for influencing public opinion and strengthening loyalty by constructing a relationship between cultural images and identity. Through such performative acts by the state, language, history, and nation are made into specific cultural images or signs that are linked to a sense of belonging and identity.

As nation-states create images of language and use them for controlling public opinion, they are engaged in a performative project. In which way can this be connected to individual language use? Individual language use could also be thought of as performative for it often surpasses the main goal of communication. The speaker is not an isolated speaker, and the addressee not an isolated addressee. Rather, language users are situated identity holders. Their identities are continuously being reinforced and challenged in situations of communication, which makes individual language use performative in my mind. While the speaker and the addressee send and receive information, affirming, rejecting, repeating and negotiating different parts of the message, they are simultaneously performing their roles. Messages and identities negotiated in acts of communication must at the same time be anchored in different discourses and images produced by different actors such as the state.

In the chapter titled “On Oral History of the Soviet Past in Central Asia: Re-Collecting, Reflecting and Re-Imagining”, Timur Dadabaev writes about the act of narrating memory in an Oral History project conducted in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In this project, individuals were asked to talk about life experiences from their Soviet pasts. Given such acts of creating a story, fragmented life experiences are re-collected and pieced together to form a narrative, not only to be shared with others as in a negotiating dialogue, but also to be presented to others, as a kind of performance to an audience. Remembering and talking about a lived life is both performative and narrative. Memories as fragmented events and feelings are sequentially ordered against a predetermined theme and told by a narrator who chooses a point of departure as the beginning of his story, which he relates to a particular temporal dimension bringing it to an end that is already known to him.

Summing up life experiences and creating a life story is not a simple project, and as Dadabaev affirms in his chapter, it results in an alternative to official historiographies created by a state or other authorities. How and to what extent is the evaluation and presentation of memory influenced by official narratives and intentionally produced cultural images? And as technology and globalization reaches new levels and enables access to more narratives, will the personal narratives of the public change and adapt? Are life stories and narrated memories important for the formation of individual as well as collective identities?

In her chapter on “The Status of Uzbek as ‘National Language’”, Birgit Schlyter introduces the notion of the ‘narrative capacity’ of language (footnote 7, p.133), suggesting that language in itself has a narrative capacity. Besides looking at the distribution of the language in space and time, and the products of the language composing its corpus, Schlyter analyzes the symbolic value of Uzbek as a national language through the manifestation of language, in which its narrative capacity can be investigated from the point of view of “political agendas and literary traditions as well as everyday language in both private life and public intercourse, having the effect of communicating sociocultural messages and serving as a means of identity formation” (p.133).

Could the narrative capacity of language, as seen in e.g. branding and life stories, be understood as the power to enforce temporal and causal sequences out of sociocultural messages available by means of everyday language use? What feature of language enables such a narrative capacity? Ruling out referentiality as the primary enabler of narrative structures, the ability of grammar to order information in time and aspect might be a good candidate.

Moreover, as connotations and ideological values are implemented in language by language users, I would like to suggest that the narrative capacity of language could also be something belonging to the language user. That is, a psychological tendency or an endeavor by the conscious language user to piece together fragments of sociocultural messages into a narrative in order to make sense of the world and position him or herself within it.

Many of the chapters in Historiography and Nation-Building among Turkic Populations (2014), not least the three chapters mentioned here, remind us of the ideological significance of language and a number of intriguing questions could be asked with regard to the performative and narrative functions of personal and official language use. By expanding the theoretical framework for the sake of identifying different levels of narrativity and performativity in signs produced by the state, in everyday language use and in the act of telling life stories, I think we could reach very interesting results.

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