After Babel

Perspectives on Language [Vera-Kögelmaier]

You are what you speak

“Who are you?”. These three words seem to be the substance of an easy question, but in the history of philospohie, this question led many times to a big debate  and even an own discourse emerged from it – the question of identity. There are a lot of different definitions of this term and everyone associates something different with it. As Maalouf points out, the first reaction on the posed question is (after introducing yourself with your name) to give oneself a rough and general labelnationality, religous affiliation, regionality and so on (Maalouf: 10-12).  All these labels do defintely belong to what we call identity but none of these describe sufficiently what is really meant by it. The concept of identity is complex and comprehensive and always demands for a more detailed view. My personal understanding of Identity is a very vague one: Identity describes the sum of what I am and what I am not. It also includes the “what I am not”, because in my opninion, Identity is also shaped through the mechanism of demarcation.  The creation of identity has more than one root and so it is hard to deny that also language is a big part of identity. The credo “du bist, was du sprichst” is to a certain extend not wrong, if you refer to studies which show that language shift is tightly connected with a shift of identity. Style of expression, use of specific words, degree of eloquence – all this contributes to how people perceive you. For people who weren’t raised bilingual, it is obvious that there will be limitations in their language skills if they speak another language than their mother tongue. For instance, the lack of vocabulary in a language could lead to the situation that people who are usually funny or quick-witted, aren’t it when they have to speak in another language.  Different characteristics of an individual are transported with language to it’s environment, thus the people the individual is surrounded of. Wittgensteiner attached language a existential importance by saying: “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.”¹

Usually identity is seen as a stable concept but it is nonetheless  flexible. A life-changing experience, the gain of new skills or simply a change of the residence can change the way we describe ourselfs and how others perceive us.
Robert Phillipson describes in his Text “Imperialism and colonialism” how european imperialists constructed a faith in the intrinsic superiority  of their languages compaired to the inferior languages of “backwarded” cultures. The scope of assumptions like these and the language policies they were/are attended by, become more clear when you listen to the concerned victims: “The colonial language policy, therefore was a part of the overall policy of governing the ‘native subjects’ in such a way that their minds would cease to be Indian. Language became an instrument for this purpose. It helped produce efficient and dedicated slaves who would be faithful to their masters and grateful to be slaves.” (Phillipson: 10). The try to exterminate ‘inferior’ languages how colonizing europe did it in Africa, Asia, America and Oceania had bigger consequences that one might assume.

Indegenous Mexican women, ready to fight against opression of their culture.

To take away language means to take away culture. Culture in turn, as well as language, build a fundamental base for the creation of identity. Language and culture are always related terms and if one of them is endangered the other one is so too. Language and identity belong together; The language use of an individual is the reflection of social circumstances. It is for example essential where (in which region –> dialect) someone grows up and where the individual is located in social space (status –> slang). The other way round we could say that language shapes identity in that sense that it determines our mindset. A good example would be the analysis of Erich Fromm in which he describes the rise of the word “have” and that it is tightly connected to the rise of capitalism. It reflects new social developments (capitalism) and at the same time it determines a new way of existence, the consuming human: “Für jene, die glauben, dass ‘haben‘ eine höchst natürliche Kategorie innerhalb der menschlichen Existenz ist, mag es überraschend sein, wenn sie erfahren, dass es in vielen Sprachen kein Wort für ‘haben’ gibt. Im Hebräischen muß ‘ich habe’ zum Beispiel durch die indirekte Form ‘jesh li‘ (es ist mir) ausgedrückt werden. Tatsächlich gibt es mehr Sprachen, die  Besitz in dieser Weise ausdrücken, als durch ‘ich habe’. (Fromm: 42-43).
Every social phenomena can find a reflection in language: sexism, opression, taboos etc. But language is not only a reflection of society, it’s also a reflection of our identity.



  • Phillipsen, Robert (2012): ‘Imperialism and colonialism’ to appear in The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy (2012), ed. Bernard Spolsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maalouf, A. (2001): Les Identités meurtrières. Paris: Bernard Grasset. pp. 9-14
  • Fromm, Erich (2001): Haben oder Sein. New York: Harper & Row.

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