Language Use in the Development and Maintenance of Cultural Identity

The following is an old piece that I recently dug out as a part of my evolving dissertation research and planning.  I’ve always been fascinated by the role of language in social interactions; in fact, my Master’s thesis sprung out of similar thinking.  My dissertation will most likely include aspects of this same train of thought.  I’ve posted the original here as a reflection on my writing from 4 years ago and as a way of stimulating new creative thoughts from old material.

Originally written 11/19/13 for an Master’s-level Intercultural Communication course at Gonzaga University.


This paper presents a review of literature discussing the impacts of language on the development and maintenance of cultural identity. The literature introduces an operational definition of cultural identity and outlines ways in which cultural groups define themselves, their relationships with other groups, and the behavioral norms expected from group members. The research provides support for the importance of cultural identity in intercultural communication, with specific emphasis on the communication of the social identity itself. This review incorporates literature that discusses specific linguistic and semantic influences on cultural identity. Additionally, this paper highlights research about language structure, accent, and etymology. Given the dynamic nature of both language and cultural identity, this paper introduces research that covers several aspects of cultural identity including communication between cultural groups, communication within cultural groups, and personal communication. Understanding the role of language in the definition and maintenance of cultural identity is fundamental to creating effective communication strategies on a global, local and interpersonal level.


“Language enables us to attend to the diverse meanings given to identities, and the ways in which participants draw upon, ignore or reconstruct their identities.”
(Jones, 2001)

Cultural Identity is a broad concept that encompasses a wide variety of ways in which individuals frame their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Cultural identity is often socially constructed through the repetition of accepted activities and behaviors within a certain cultural group, and individuals use these normative behaviors to draw nearer to – or in some cases alienate themselves from – their cultural groups. Cultural clusters have developed diverse and complex mores that serve as a means of strengthening in-group loyalty, and subsequently, the conservation of values within the cultural group. Like individuals, societal groups also use cultural identity markers as a way to distinguish themselves from, and assert superiority over other societal groups. These cultural identity markers include behavioral traits such as gender roles, assumptions of decency/politeness, and most important to this discussion, language.

As the quote above suggests, language is a fundamental tool in the development and maintenance of cultural identity. Through its fluid structural nature, language is unique in its ability to adapt to rapidly changing social situations while providing cultural groups with a reasonably consistent foundation for identity development. This paper will review current research on the use of language as a mechanism for developing, maintaining and perpetuating cultural identity. The literature includes a discussion of language use among different cultural groups as well as how linguistic constructs impact in-group loyalty, personal relationships and individual sense of self through the cultural identity lens. As today’s world becomes increasingly globalized, a critical understanding of language and cultural identity is important for intercultural communicators in every aspect of business, politics, commerce, and interpersonal spheres.

Defining Cultural Identity

In Difference Matters, Brenda Allen (2004) begins the discussion by citing sociologists Howard and Alamilla to assert that “identity” answers the question “Who am I?” and also “Who am I in relation to others?” (p. 11). In contrast to the essentialist or biological determinist point of view, Allen defines identity as a social construct rather than an unchangeable set of traits stemming from one’s biological makeup (e.g. sex). While factors such as biology and geography often play a role in the cultural identity, most theorists today reject a strict determinist viewpoint. McConnell-Ginet (2011) points out that “identities are not put together simply by linking independent identifications as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, occupation and local origins. Rather, different dimensions of identity inflect one another” (p. 11). For the purposes of this literature review, cultural (and social) identity can be defined by “the ways in which individuals and collectives are distinguished in their social relations with other individuals and collectives” (Allen, 2004. p. 11).

Influences of Language on Cultural Identity

Defining our Cultural Groups

One critical element of cultural identity is a clear understanding of one’s cultural groupings. As Allen (2004) points out in her discussion of social identity theory (SIT), “members of social identity groups constantly compare their group with others” (p. 14). Further, the author states that people “tend to react more to perceived group characteristics than to the other person as an individual” (p. 14). This suggests that definitions of large cultural groupings are fundamental to the development of identity and can have significant impacts on in-group and out-group relationships. One of the most basic ways humans define these groups is by assigning them names.

In their work on “ethnonyms (from Greek roots for ‘national group and ‘name’),” Mullen, Calogero and Leader (2007) outline several examples of how cultural groups use naming conventions to distinguish themselves from others, and subsequently how individuals perceive the strength of their cultural group. As this paper will discuss later, perceived strength of cultural group is important to group loyalty and willingness to participate in furtherance of collective identity. Mullen et al (2007) outline six distinguishing characteristics of different ethnonyms to support the assertion that “ways in which members of an in-group think about their in-group…may be systematically linked to the ways in which the in-group interacts with out-groups. The authors present three types of ethnonyms, including toponyms (names based on land or shared geography), glottonyms (language), anthroponyms (concepts of humanness), and three modifiers including aggressiveness of representation, valence of the in-group, and complexity of the representation. The authors found that intergroup hostility “was greater among cultures characterized by less complex ethnonyms,” (Mullen et al. 2007) suggesting that simplified representations of a group debases the group’s value and diminishes the rich collection of cultural identifiers that accompany philosophical ideals such as concepts of humanness (as found in anthroponyms) or national patriotism (as found in toponyms). Ethnonyms present a powerful linguistic driver of cultural identity in large cultural groups, and similar concepts can be applied to defining sub-groups based on social constructs of “class” (e.g. wealth, education, social standing).

Cultural identity is a dynamic and pliable social concept that requires linguistic constructs specifically adapted to cultural environments. Lupyan and Dale (2010) suggest that “just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used” (p. 1). In this Language Niche Hypothesis, patterns in morphology (and subsequently lexical strategy and grammar) change based on the population using the language. For example, languages spoken by large diverse populations tend to be morphologically simpler and rely more on the predictability (and instructability) of formalized grammar than on the repetition of sound in more complex language. Lupyan and Dale posit that this shift is due in large part to the number of adult learners of language in large populations. It may be deduced then, that languages of “dominant” cultures (e.g. English) have evolved to support the acquisition of new population members, and perhaps, facilitate the adoption of the dominant cultural identities.

Defining Our Membership in Groups

When individuals are members of a cultural group (either through birth, or as an assimilated adult), the use of language is one way to solidify one’s position within the group. Using the psychology of language theory, Katharine W. Jones (2001) presents an argument for the construction of national identity through accent negotiation and other self-presentation strategies. The author states, “Conventional definitions of national identity such as place of birth, citizenship, passports, etc., are all Important [sic], but the active achievement of national Identity through social practices like language helps individuals to believe that they belong to the nation.” Jones’ research was designed to assess levels of anxiety among native (UK) English speakers living in the United States, and provide insight on how these citizens negotiated their language use to further assimilate or further distinguish themselves from their fellow English speakers. This work reveals two unique attributes of cultural identity maintenance through language. The first is the fear that “an invisible audience of English people” (Jones, 2001.) – perhaps the learned cultural norms as internally defined – is judging the individual and may be questioning the individual’s true English-ness. Second, individuals demonstrated conscious use of “distancing mechanisms” (Jones, 2001.) to maintain their Englishness in spite of the Americanisms that had become a part of their language use. Clearly, group membership is an important aspect of cultural identity, and this research demonstrates the anxiety faced by individuals to maintain good standing in their preferred cultural groups.

Membership in cultural groups is not only beneficial to the individual. When group members experience positive habituation (acceptance) with the group, they tend to be more loyal, and subsequently, contribute in more and more positive ways to group-sustaining activities. Van Vugt and Claire (2004) sought to highlight choice-making behavior in individuals when presented with an option to leave a social group for a seemingly more attractive option. The research demonstrates that individuals most often make choices about group membership based on their perception of the group. In addition, the authors found that “high identifiers” are less concerned with the investment of their own social capital in the group and often disregard general social constructs such as abandonment norms. This research and analysis suggests that cultural groups are most successful when individuals have high group loyalty. Group loyalty is a stability mechanism that acts as a buffer against external cultural pressure and insulates individual group members within a positive, meaningful environment. In such an environment, then, individuals may experience less cultural anxiety, fewer self-presentation conflicts, and may be able to more easily craft a comprehensive sense of self.

Defining Ourselves

The literature suggests that the way in which individuals define themselves is inextricably linked to the ways in which we define the groups to which we belong. As Allen (2004) asserts, “socially constructed categories of identity influence how others interact with us (and vice versa) and how we perceive ourselves” (p 12). This is an important distinction, since individual perception of self can have significant impact on behavior, feelings of group loyalty, cultural superiority etc. Definitions of self arise from “socialization” or “the total set of experiences in which children become clear about norms and expectations” (Holtzman, L. 2000).

Just as with large group use of ethnonyms to distinguish themselves from other groups, individuals use labeling and self presentation strategies to associate themselves with (or distinguish themselves from) certain social groups. In Gender, Sexuality and Meaning: Linguistic Practice and Politics, Sally McConnell-Ginet (2011) offers an in-depth assessment of how language constructs are fundamental to “the transmission and reinforcement of cultural belief systems” (p. 6). In the introduction to her study of high school students’ use of language to construct self, McConnell-Ginet (2011) states, “Language is a primary tool people use in constituting themselves as ‘kinds’ of people in terms of which attributes, activities and participation in social practice can be regulated” (p. 130). Consistent with the social constructivist philosophy, the author continues with a discussion of data collected from the observation of a “community of practice” at a high school outside Detroit. Because the high school environment is rife with dynamic social categories and evolving social constructions, “labeling” becomes a reflective process that students use to categorize their environments and make judgments. McConnell-Ginet asserts that “labels arise in relation to real people in real situations… through such activities, labels are endowed with meaning” (p. 137). As stated earlier, members of a highly stable (or perceived as stable) environment are often more liberated in their ability to explore their own definitions of self. For McConnell-Ginet, “labeling” one’s self with terms such as “jock” or “burnout” represents the individual attempt to fit in to pre-defined social categories while simultaneously defining what they are not. The high school ‘clique’ example is particularly illustrative of cultural identity and language. As gender and class roles become more widely understood, “labeling” and linguistic distancing methods may gain importance in the study of intercultural communication.


As the literature illustrates, cultural identity is created through a wide range of activities. Language is a tool well suited to handling the nuances of cultural identity, and may, in fact gain much of its structure from how it is used. Humans use language to categorize the world around them, communicating these categories to others as a way to associate themselves to or distance themselves from others. This paper has demonstrated the importance of language in defining the groups to which we belong as well as in defining how we view ourselves. Perhaps most importantly, the literature seems to indicate that it is in the definition of ourselves with relation to our groups that we find the richest, most dynamic aspects of cultural identity. After all, groups are made up of people, and people are almost always a part of a group. In this way, the process of cultural identity creation is dependent on the successful navigation of one’s self in one’s group. The literature suggests that if one has a mastery (or understanding) of the power of language, this navigation becomes significantly easier, and may ultimately increase feelings of group loyalty, longevity of the group, and personal satisfaction as a member of a group.



Allen, B. (2004). Difference matters: Communicating social identity. Longrove, IL: Waveland Press.

Collier, M.J. & Thomas, M. (1998). Cultural identity:  An interpretive perspective. In Y.Y. Kim & W.B. Gudykunst (Eds.), Theories in intercultural communication (International and Intercultural Communication Annual, Volume 12, pp. 99-120). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Retrieved from

Holtzman, L. (2000). Media messages: What film, television, and popular music teach us about race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe

Jones, K. W. (2001). ‘I’ve Called ’em Tom-ah-toes All My Life and I’m Not Going to Change!’: Maintaining Linguistic Control Over English Identity in the U.S. Social Forces79(3), 1061-1094.

Lupyan, G., & Dale, R. (2010). Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure. Plos ONE5(1), 1-10. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008559

McConnell-Ginet, S. (2011). Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning : Linguistic Practice and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mullen, B., Calogero, R. M., & Leader, T. I. (2007). A social psychological study of ethnonyms: Cognitive representation of the in-group and intergroup hostility. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology92(4), 612-630. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.612

Van Vugt, M., & Hart, C. M. (2004). Social Identity as Social Glue: The Origins of Group Loyalty. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology86(4), 585-598. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.86.4.585

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