The Whens and Wheres -- As well As Hows -- of Ethnolinguistic Recognition
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Public Culture 15.3 (2003) 531-557



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The Whens and Wheres— As Well As Hows—of Ethnolinguistic Recognition

Michael Silverstein


How can they be real Americans if they don't/won't/can't speak English?" We've all heard such questions, and we've read similar sentiments in angry letters to newspapers. At least, the feeling must be, that people within a certain political boundary—there's a "where"—and in public ear- or eye-shot—there's a "when"—ought to signal their recognition of now being included within the social whole by using the dominant language—there's a "how"—(and by not using others). Here is language use conceptualized as unavoidably wearing an emblem of identity (or at least of self-identification). And it can go even further in its rationale for the insistence. Evidencing a language-shapes-thought Whorfianism, certain people also reason that those using languages other than ours could not possibly think about the world the way we speakers of English do. (Here, one can substitute any two languages.) With this rationale, editorialists and writers of letters to the editor feel ever more justified in linking the emblematic value of language use to some deep intuition about why ethnolinguistic difference should not be tolerated [End Page 531] "here" and "now." Plurilingualism in civil society—taken thus as an index of difference of thought—offends the sense that there can be a social whole transparently instantiating a longed-for common public opinion. Implicit anxieties of subjectivity underlie explicit anxieties of ethnolinguistic identity.

Anxieties of identity. Identity on people's minds. We hear constantly of crises of identity, of the workings of identity politics, of identity work that needs to be done, and so forth. So let us start at the beginning. By identity we can understand a subjective intuition that one belongs to a particular social category of people, with certain potentials and consequences of this belonging. Frequently the intuition suggests participation in ritual occasions and socializing in certain ways in variously institutionalized forms to make our identity clear to ourselves and to others on a continuing basis. This already suggests a kind of temporality to the way identity is, as it were, practiced.

Like all social psychological facts, people's subjective intuitions of identity can be strong or weak, focused or diffuse, persistent or intermittent over various intervals. I am only indirectly concerned here with these intensely individual experiences of identity intuitions, important as they are for literary expression and for each individual biography. 1 I am rather concerned with the social conditions in which they come into being as normative orientations among whole populations of individuals, are sustained or discouraged among them, or disappear (in the psychosocial phenomenon called the "loss" of identity in "assimilation").

And in particular, I am concerned with what we term ethnolinguistic identity, that is, people's intuitions of social categoriality emerging from certain cultural assumptions about language. These construe language as constituting a basis for the divisions among types or kinds of people, especially as people conceive languages to be the central and enabling vehicle or channel of thought and culture.

So ethnolinguistic identity is not a mechanical institutional fact; it is a fact of a psychosocial sort that has emerged where people ascribe a certain primordiality to language and a certain consequentiality to language difference. They consider it for one or another cultural reason to be a guide to socially meaningful differences among people and to people's socially effective membership in groups. Ethnolinguistic identity intuits that there are differential claims to social participation based on differences of membership in what we can term a language community. [End Page 532]

Thus we can understand its importance in the contemporary era of heightened ethnic and especially ethnonational identity: the modern era, it seems. Various interested ethnic and ethnonationalist projects use the institutional paraphernalia of ethnolinguistic identity as an instrument of mobilizing sentiment. Such projects constitute a strong force motivating people to linguistic consciousness and concern—at the same time giving experiential concreteness to nationalist sentiment...