Language and identity: National, ethnic, religious.

Language and identity: National, ethnic, religious. By John E. Joseph. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. 268. ISBN 0333997530. $26.95.

Reviewed by Rizwan Ahmad, University of Michigan

Much recent work in sociolinguistics focuses on the role that language plays in the construction of social identities. John Joseph’s book, which consists of eight chapters, addresses fundamental issues that inform most research on language and identity. Ch. 1 discusses the theoretical concept of identity as a social construct, rather than a natural fact. J further shows that identity is not unitary or fixed, but rather multiple and variable.

Ch. 2 provides a historical conspectus on the relevant linguistic research, which has treated language as either a system of representation or a means of communication. J argues that Bronislaw Malinowski’s view that meaning depends on the ‘context of situation’ was a breakthrough in decentering language as a system of representation and constituted pioneering research on language as a sociocultural phenomenon. J argues that linguistic identity is significant because it is both a way of communicating and a way of categorizing.

Ch. 3 situates the study of language and identity within the larger framework of the study of language. J gives an overview of the ideas and concepts that led to the emergence of scholarly interests in the language-identity issue in the twentieth century; this includes work by Valentin N. Voloshinov in the former Soviet Union, Edward Sapir in North America, and John R. Firth and his students in Britain. In Ch. 4, J discusses contributions made to the language-identity research by scholars in other fields, for example, Erving Goffman, Basil Bernstein, Howard Giles, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Bourdieu.

Ch. 5 focuses on the role of language in the construction of national identity. J gives an extensive review of the emergence of the concept of nationalism, tracing it back to the Old Testament. Then he discusses the crystallization that the concept ‘nation’ went through during the French and American revolutions. Linking his discussion of nationalism to language, J argues that language is a social construct just as much as nationalism is.

Ch. 6 is an empirical chapter that discusses the sociolinguistic situation of Hong Kong in general and the status of English in particular. J argues that what is often referred to as a ‘decline’ of English in Hong Kong may actually be a beginning of the emergence of a new variety of English, one that may serve as a marker of Hong Kong identity distinct from mainland Chinese identity.

Ch. 7 focuses on linguistic aspects of ethnic and religious identities. As an example of the power of ethnic identity, J points out that African-Americans continue to have a different dialect despite living in the same neighborhoods with caucasians for generations. He also cites studies on linguistic crossing, which highlights the ways language is used to enact ethnic boundaries. He indicates, however, that studies on crossing reinforce the conservative view that people are linguistically expected to stick to their ethnic labels. J also discusses how personal names, understudied in linguistics, serve as tokens of ethnic and religious identities.

Ch. 8 is an empirical study that discusses the role of language in the construction of Christian identity in Lebanon. J shows that the choice of the second language in the bilingual repertoire of Lebanese is a marker of religious identity. Christians, especially Maronites, of Lebanon are more likely to be French-Arabic bilinguals than are Muslims, for whom the second language is often English.

This book concludes with an afterword in which J emphasizes that for a rich and meaningful study of language, identity research must take center stage.