Language and Thought: Cross cultural understanding of the concept of ‘identity’
Augustine Agwuele (Texasstate University, USA)
There are remarkable differences across languages in term of how different languages describe the world and their experiences. Since the relationship between a linguistic code and what they signify, the meanings and entailment of a phrase are based on convention.
As such the same message could be communicated by different linguistic signals; nonetheless, the comprehension of any encoded message is against the backlash and background of specific socio-cultural and political experiences shared within a community of practice. As noted by Sherzer (1987) meanings are contingent on events rather than in conventional word glosses and grammatical structure. By having a shared history and experience, it is easy for a community to rarefy its history and common understandings into codes for ease of communication, thereby creating common vocabulary, the essential ingredient in culture and community formation. This raises a pertinent question that appears to have eluded the attention of scholars: does having different worldviews and mode of interpreting experiences lead speakers to encode the same event differently? How does globalization of English language affect bilinguals’ conceptualization of the concept of identity in English and in their native language?
In order to speak and be understood speakers and hearers must be enculturated into the same linguistic conventions. For example Boroditsky (2001) showed that by learning English, Mandarin speakers’ were able to adopt and display American conception of time, thus implying that new frame of references could be acquired through language learning; and by extension, the learning of a new mode of viewing, presenting, and locating the self. This paper suggests that divergence in socio-historical circumstances introduces systematic biases into the way each community encodes and understands their experiences, and a switch between communities, creates new frame of reference. This assertion is demonstrated by examining the cross-cultural understanding and adoption of the term “identity” by bilingual speakers of Yoruba and English
The concept of identity was chosen because of its extant prevalent in the literature and the many views regarding its usage for example, some view identity as essential others view it a multiple (Jenkins 1996, but see Brubaker, 2000).Other than the fact that such phrases like religious identity, sexual identity, ethnic identity, linguistic identity are imbued with extraordinary explanatory power in Western literatures, they have become catch–phrases for framing, categorizing, and organizing experiences of others e.g., Africans. Not clear however, is whether the same internal images and associations are called up by these phrases for the users and the readers in Africa. Antagonists of those who apply European nomenclatures to African socio-cultural issues accuse their colleagues of enforcing on African discourses foreign terms that index different referents. They contend that these terms are not universals; rather they are provincial, because they reflect specific cultural experiences. African issues, they suggest, ought to be explicated within African context, worldview and ‘framework’ (Hanks, 1993). In support of this assertion, they cite the lack of indigenous African words for these English phrases; they argue that a borrowed concept implies a borrowed ideology and that the imposition of foreign ideology. This paper examines whether there is a mismatch between a Yoruba speaker’s conceptualization of the concept of identity in their native language relative to when speaking in English.
In order to probe these issues i.e., globalization of English and its effect on culture of non-global language, native Yoruba speakers (scholars) were polled with respect to their intuitive understanding and their expression of the term “identity” in Yoruba and English. Subjects consisted of scholars and professionals who either reside in the US/Europe or in Nigeria. Since each group lives in a different socio-economic reality, it is hypothesized that their responses will diverge to reflect the way their respective communities of practice construe the world. Of primary importance is whether the same mental images and connotations obtain when they traverse linguistic boundaries. The responses will implicate the relativity, hence cultural determination or otherwise of English conceptualization and usage of the term “identity”
The result from the responses shows that the concept of identity as “the knowing subject” is linguistically and psychologically real to the Yoruba language, whereas identity seen as a theory of the discursive person (Foucault) or used to describe “what people do, or as a means of constructing, locating, and presenting themselves” becomes linguistically real only when subjects operated in English language. Further, the result suggests following (Brubaker & Cooper, 2000) that the extant usages of identity cannot be disconnected from the cultural concerns whence they issued. Operating in a different language involves the adoption of a different category and requires a renegotiation or evaluation and evolution of the self and ways of discursively representing the self. In other words, in a different language a person buys into that society’s mutually constructed view and representation of the self.
- Boroditsky L. 2001.Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time Cognitive Psychology 43, 1–23
- Brubaker, Rogers & F. Cooper. 2000. Beyond Identity. Theory and Society 29/1 2000. 1–47
- Hanks, W.F. 1993. Metalanguage and Pragmatics of Deixies. In John A. Lucy (ed.), Reflexive language: Reported speech and Metapragmatics. 127–157. CUP
- Jenkins Richard, 1996. Social Identity. London, Routlege.
- Sherzer, J. 1987. A Discourse-Centered Approach to Language and Culture. American Anthropologist 89: 295–309
- Quine, W. V. On the Reasons for Indeterminacy of Translation, J. of Phil. 1970