Language, migration, and identity

Language, migration, and identity: Neighborhood talk in Indonesia. By Zane Goebel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xvii, 221. ISBN 9780521519915. $95 (Hb).

Reviewed by Kanavillil Rajagopalan, State University at Campinas, Brazil

This book is concerned with an intensely researched issue in contemporary language studies, the formation and refashioning of identity in and through language. Rather than discussing identity in the abstract, G focuses on the negotiation of identity in a concrete linguistic setting, the island of Java.

Subtitled ‘Neighborhood talk in Indonesia’, the book takes an in-depth look at the bewildering linguistic reality of Indonesia, made even more complex and, to many outsiders, intractable by the religious and ethnic diversity of the region. What distinguishes G’s approach is his emphasis on hard-nosed empirical investigation instead of the more familiar post-structuralist and social constructivist approaches, as discussed in Ch. 1. The object of G’s investigation is how talk plays a vital role in mediating social relations. The analysis is based on data gathered from two Rukun Tetangga (‘ward(s)’) of Semarang, a city in north-east Java.

Chs. 2 and 3 are devoted to unpacking the complexities of enregisterment, in which certain stereotypes of language-identity relationships come into being. G drives home the point that language and identity are ultimately inseparable concepts. Ch. 4, ‘Linguistic signs, alternation, crossing and adequation’, examines how language categorization, language choice, codeswitching, and so forth play out in the conversational narratives of ward members. Ch.5 focuses on processes of social identification in a situation of increasingly large migratory movements.

The chapter that follows takes a closer look at how ‘one non-Javanese newcomer learns to use fragments of ngoko [informal] Javanese as part of a collusive telling of a story about one neighbor’s perceived inappropriate actions’ (5). Chs. 7 and 8 further explore the set of strategies that newcomers employ to integrate themselves into the host community, which often fly in the face of firmly entrenched language ideologies. G notes that these practices, despite their first appearance of being gendered, may admit of more nuanced interpretations. Ch. 9 distinguishes two language ideologies in the wards, one relating to interaction among local Javanese and the other to language use in interethnic interactions. G underscores the vital role of governmental policy in the formation of the second language ideology.

The book offers the reader a window on a corner of the earth where language and identity go hand in hand, a fact further brought into relief by ongoing migration and the resultant readjustments in fashioning individual identities and imagining the social fabric.