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Identities, Gender & Sexuality: Linguistic Anthropology

Throughout the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the discussion of how one’s identity is being formed and also how possession of such an identity affects the existential mode of a concerned individual, had become strongly associated with the methodological framework of linguistic anthropology’s discourse. This can be partially explained by the fact that, during that time, more and more researches were coming to a conclusion that semiotic subtleties of a particular language should be referred to as ‘thing in itself’ – that is, the significance of a language as communication tool must not solely be assessed from functualist but also from an essentialist perspective. In his article ‘Linguistic relativities’, John Leavitt (2006, p.61) provides us with the insight onto qualitative quintessence of Boasian (after Franz Boas) approach to dealing with the subject matter, on account of which the understanding of a language as such that defines the workings of one’s consciousness, had attained an academic legitimacy: ‘The key difference among languages lies less in what they allow you to say – any language will allow you to say anything you want – than in what a given language obliges you to refer to’. That is, the forms of linguistic and verbal expression determine an expression’s semiotic content.

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Nevertheless, given the fact that Boas’ linguistically based perception of identity subtly undermines the validity of euro-centric approach to identity-related discourses, it comes as no surprise that, within the context of a proposed methodology, the soundness of very notion of identity becomes significantly undermined. After all, if we assume that one’s existential uniqueness is being solely concerned with particulars of his or her linguistic upbringing, then we will have no choice but to refer to the specifics of individual’s biological constitution as quite irrelevant, within the context of how such individual perceives surrounding reality. Yet, there is plenty of empirical data available that points out something entirely opposite – it is not the linguistic specifics of a particular language, which defines existential psyche, on the part of such language’s carrier, but rather vice versa. In this work, we will aim to substantiate the legitimacy of such our suggestion and also to reveal psychoanalytic insights onto person’s identity, which are being mainly concerned with exploration of qualitative subtleties of one’s sexuality, as utterly inconsistent with the principle of ‘Occam’s razor’, and therefore – quite inappropriate, within the context of identity-related discourses.

Nowadays, it became a common trend among many linguistic anthropologists to confuse Benjamin Lee Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity, explored in his work ‘The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language’, with the principle of cultural relativism, which is being strongly favored by enforcers of multiculturalism in Western countries. Nevertheless, drawing parallels between two principles appears methodologically inappropriate. In the article, from which we have already quoted, Leavitt had made a good point while stating: ‘To many who have read Whorf’s published work, this (the suggestion that the specifics of a language influence or determine its speakers’ thought), seems like a misrepresentation’ (2006: p. 64). Essentially the same idea is being promoted in John Lucy’s article ‘Whorf’s view of the linguistic meditation of thought’: ‘Ironically, given their importance, Whorf’s writings have been widely misunderstood both as to their actual content and as to their historical position and significance’ (1992, p. 74). Despite what it is commonly assumed in today’s Western academia, Whorf never intended to promote an idea that one’s association with a particular language defines the workings of his or her mentality.

On the contrary, his research onto semiotics on Hopi language leaves very little doubt as to the fact that the specifics of how this language conveys semantic messages simply reflect the ‘pre-logical’, ‘de-abstract’ and ‘overly-concrete’ subtleties of Hopi people’s perception of surrounding reality. As it appears from Whorf’s article, Hopi people are simply incapable of classifying the emanations of objective reality terminologically, unless these emanations have a direct relation to how these people go about addressing life’s challenges. This is exactly the reason why linguistic constructs, deriving out of the principle of time-continuity, such as ‘ten days’, in the eyes of Hopi natives do not make any sense whatsoever: ‘Such an expression as ‘ten days’ is not used. The equivalent statement is an operational one that reaches one day by a suitable count. ‘They stayed ten days’ becomes ‘they stayed until the eleventh day’ or ‘they left after the tenth day.’ ‘Ten days is greater than nine days’ becomes ‘the tenth day is later than the ninth’ (Worf 1956: p.140). Moreover, as Worf’s linguistic analysis of Hopi language indicates, Hopi natives are also quite incapable of distinguishing between the notion of matter, as an abstract category, and the notion of matter, as something that has to do with their everyday living: ‘In specific statements, ‘water’ means (in Hopi language) one certain mass or quantity of water, not what we call ‘the substance water’ (1956: p. 141). Thus, the observations, contained in Worf’s article, leave no doubts as to perceptional atavism, on the part of Hopi people, which in its turn, is being reflected in the specifics of their language. What it means is that, despite what proponents of culturally-relativist linguistic anthropology imply, the difference between languages is being essentially qualitative, which is why it is absolutely appropriate to refer to some languages as ‘primitive’ and to others as ‘advanced’, at least in operational sense of this word.

As we are well aware of from cinematographic/documentary depictions of indigenous tribes, the members of these tribes tend to refer to themselves in third person – ‘Mubma will go hunting and Mumba will bring his family some meat’. However, not many people realize that such natives’ tendency have nothing to do with their failure to master English language, but with biologically predetermined workings of their mentality – in their own languages, these people refer to themselves in the same way. In its turn, this points out to the fact that, unlike Westerners, natives do not go about trying to emphasize their individuality as one of their primary existential pursuits – they consider themselves an integral part of nature.

In his book ‘The “Soul” of the primitive’, famous French ethno-anthropologist Lucien Lévy Bruhl (1928, p. 120) was able to define the mechanics of how primitive mentality assesses surrounding reality with perfect exactness: ‘Nature appears in their (natives’) collective representations, not as an object, not as a system of objects and phenomena governed by fixed laws, according to the rules of logical thought, but as a moving assemblage or totality of mystic actions and reactions, within which individual does not subjectualize but objectualize itself’. In its turn, this explains why native languages that have not been affected by what Worf refers to as SAE (Standard Average European) languages, do not feature much of an abstract terminology and also why their operational essence appears utterly utilitarian, in the functionalist context of this word.

Such characterization of majority of non-Indo-European languages points out to the fact that; whereas, indigenous people are being more capable of perceiving existential challenges through the lenses of utilitarian practicality, as compared what it is the case with native-born Westerners, their ability to define dialectical relationship between causes and effects appears somewhat lessened. As it was shown in Bruhl’s book, when being asked to exclude semantically unrelated words out of wordily sequence axe – hammer – saw – log, indigenous people were experiencing a particularly hard time – in their eyes, the earlier mentioned sequence made a perfectly good sense, as it was. The fact that words axe, hammer and saw could be categorized as ‘instruments’, on one hand, and that the word log could be categorized as ‘material’, on another, never even occurred to natives. Therefore, indigenous people’s cognitive ‘closeness to nature’, which is now being often represented as the ultimate proof as to their moral superiority, when compared to ‘evil’ Whites, is best discussed in terms of being a proof to something entirely different – namely, these people’s lessened ability to function as productive members of highly urbanized Western societies. In its turn, this explains why ethnic immigrants’ tendency to emphasize their identity by altering phonetics, lexicon and syntax of SAE languages is often being perceived as particularly humorous.

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The article ‘Identity and language construction in an online community: The case of ‘Ali G’, in which Mark Sebba discusses how Sasha Cohen (Ali G) was able to attain public prominence on British TV by exposing viewers to his self-adopted identity of a Creole-speaking and gangsta-lifestyle-practicing ‘ethically unique’ Londoner, implicitly substantiates the validity of our earlier suggestion. According to Sebba, the reason why Cohen’s manipulation with Creolized linguistic forms and definitions had instantly won him recognition as the actual Jamaican-British, despite the particulars of his physical appearance, is that language itself has the power of creating a unique identity, on the part of its affiliates: ‘Language is central to the ‘Ali G’ phenomenon. ‘Ali G’s’ language is a blend of non-standard Southern British English with grammatical, phonological and lexical features derived from Jamaican Creole’ (2007, p. 362). Nevertheless, we do not necessarily subscribe to Sebba’s view on the essence of Cohen’s popularity with viewing audiences as such that derived out of comedian’s acute understanding of what constitutes Jamaican-British linguistic identity, but rather as such that reflected Cohen’s subconscious insight onto the fact that Creolized linguistic forms cannot be adequately utilized as channels for conveying urban-based semantic messages.

The reason for this is simple – just as it is being the case with Hopi language, Creolized English appears being a linguistic by-product of ethnic immigrants’ tendency to impersonify surrounding reality by the mean of objectualising themselves verbally. This is exactly the reason why ‘Ali G’ never ceased referring to himself in third person: ‘Me was bored ‘cos me had to do the same year for four years; they didn’t know me was dyslexical, and lots of people have told me that me have got the brain of a brain scientist if me only been to school and not fallen behind so’ (2007, p. 371). The reason why ‘Ali G’s’ way of talking appeared so funny is that, despite the fact that Cohen’s character never skipped an opportunity to emphasize its ethno-identity, the workings of his psyche betrayed him as being largely deprived of an identity that would actually deserve to be ‘celebrated’. In its turn, this validates our earlier suggestion that; whereas, language can be utilized by an individual as the tool of identity-accentuation, it is not the way in which such individual pronounces certain words or how he constructs sentences that constitutes his existential identity, but solely the extent of individual’s ability to operate with abstract categories (Intelligence Quotidian). Those whose IQ is being higher than 100 would never be willing to refer to themselves in third person. However, this have very little to do with the acuteness of intelligent people’s sense of linguistic finesse, but rather with their biologically predetermined inclination to actively confront nature, due to their stance in life as existential sovereigns.

Therefore, the linguistic concept of ‘act of identity’, as such that is being concerned with the process of a particular individual trying to accentuate its individuality by the mean of altering the conventions of well-established SAE languages, cannot be discussed outside of socio-political circumstances that make the referrals to such ‘acts’ academically appropriate. As it was rightly noted by Kathryn Woolard in her article ‘Bystanders and the linguistic construction of identity in face-to-back communication’, it is namely by reflecting upon bystanders’ impressions that essentially identitless individuals go about attaining much desired sense of identity: ‘Language choice can be intended to be overheard, and thus potentially mobilized for identity claiming’ (2007, p. 2001). However, as it appears out of context of this suggestion, one’s sense of identity, acquired by the mean of exposing public to different forms of linguistic inadequateness, can hardly be thought of as objective, simply because it can only last for as long as concerned individual continuously indulges in social interactions with other members of society. Yet, as realities of post-industrial living indicate, one’s ability to prompt others to recognize a uniqueness of his or her individuality by consciously representing itself as being endowed with rural mentality (reflected in individual’s distaste towards urban-based linguistic correctness), has temporal subtleties. The career of ‘Ali G’ can serve as the best proof as to the soundness of earlier statement – it was only for duration of a year that viewers were willing to admit ‘Ali G’ being endowed with the strong sense of multicultural identity, which in its turn prompted these viewers to continue regarding him as particularly amusing TV character.

It is important to understand that it is only individuals capable of adopting the identity of others, which are being commonly regarded as existentially unique, in full sense of this word, because the very concept of strong identity implies its carrier’s ability to adjust to continuously changing social circumstances. In its turn, this explains why, the more ‘Ali G’ was losing popularity with viewers as a TV character; the more Sasha Cohen was gaining popularity with the same viewers, as an individual. What it means is that people’s linguistic unconventionality can only be perceived as the ultimate proof as to their intellectual flexibility (and therefore, their endowment with the strong sense of self-identity), for as long as such unconventionality does not attain subtleties of a fetish. Yet, the fact that some people go about exploring their self-identity by projecting their linguistic ‘uniqueness’ upon others, serves as the foremost indication as to these people’s affiliation with a particular subculture. And, as psychologists are well aware of, one’s association with a particular sub-culture cannot be discussed outside of concerned individual’s willingness to think of its own individuality through the lenses of perceptional fetishism, which explains why the foremost psychological trait of member of a particular sub-culture can be best defined as such individual’s lack of intellectual flexibility. However, as we have pointed out earlier, the notion of identity and the notion of intellectual inflexibility are mutually exclusive.

Given the fact that intellectually flexible people have traditionally been regarded as being capable of relying mainly on their sense of rationale, while tackling life’s problems, the idea that an individual’s linguistically sublimated animalistic impulses may somehow contribute to the formation of his or her self-identity appears theoretically fallacious. This is why we cannot agree with most suggestions, promoted by Cameron and Kulick in their book ‘Language and sexuality’.

According to both authors, it is specifically the sensory intensity of people’s sexual desire, which accounts for formation of a sense of self-identity, on these people’s part. Moreover, authors imply that, given the fact that homosexuals often find themselves being socially excluded, it is namely those who practice an alternative sex-style that should be referred to as possessing especially strong sense of self-identity, which in its turn is being reflected in these people’s tendency to socialize with each other within the framework of sexually unconventional sub-culture, and also to utilize linguistic and para-linguistic paradigms to emphasize their affiliation with such sub-culture: ‘Travestis do not define themselves as women; they define themselves, instead, as homosexuals – as males who feel ‘like women’ and who ardently desire ‘men’ (that is, masculine, non-homosexual males). Their sexual preference (for masculine, non-homosexual men) is central to their identity’ (2003, p. 6). However, the reading of ‘Language and sexuality’ did not provide us with the insight on how physiological particulars of one’s sexuality may be attributive to the formation of his or her sense of existential identity, as such that it being solely concerned with individual’s ability to effectively address life’s challenges by the mean of conceptualizing them linguistically.

In its turn, this explains why, despite the fact that Cameron and Kulick’s book contains a fair amount of sophisticatedly sounding terminology; the validity of book’s main premise is being significantly undermined by authors’ own recognition of the fact that English language is simply not being grammatically adapted to function as linguistic medium, within the context of sexuality-related discourses: ‘In the English language as such, there is no grammatical rule that prevents speakers from representing sex as something women do to men, or something women and men do together…’ (2003, p. 30). Apparently, while working on their book, authors had failed to observe the principle of ‘Occam’s razor’, which presupposes that there is no need to be coming up with complex explanations, as to the essence of a particular phenomenon, for as long as simplified explanations are available.

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As it was rightly pointed out in Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet’s article ‘Communities of practice: Where language, gender, and powerball live’: ‘Our diagnosis is that gender and language studies suffer from the same problem confronting sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics more generally: too much abstraction’ (1992, p. 1). It appears that nowadays, more and more scientists, specializing in linguistic anthropology, think of their professional activities solely as something that allows them to gain additional academic credits. This explains why the bulk of recent research, regarding representational qualities of linguistic paradigms, can be best referred to as quite unintelligible. Of course, such a state of affairs can hardly be thought of as appropriate.

Throughout the concluding part of this paper, we will summarize earlier arguments, in regards to how linguistic methodology might come in handy, within the context of defining qualitative subtleties of people’s identity, and will also come with suggestions as to what should account for methodological appropriateness in how researchers might proceed with their field studies.

Despite the fact that many today’s linguistic anthropologists tend to intentionally overcomplicate identity-related discourses, there appears to be nothing particularly complex about how people perceive their own self-identity and the identity of others. In his book ‘Discourse: A critical introduction’, Jan Blommaert had made a perfectly legitimate point while stating: ‘A conversation between a Turkish immigrant and a Belgian police officer may not show any interactional traces of active and explicit orienting towards the categories of ‘ Turkish immigrant’ or ‘ police officer’. But both parties in the interaction are in all likelihood very much aware of each other’s identity’ (2005, p. 206). Even though that the enforcers of political correctness strive their best to prevent citizens from even considering a possibility that people’s existential identity may somehow be reflective of specifics of their physiological constitution, it is namely the correlation between people’s ability to indulge in abstract thinking and the particulars of their ethno-cultural affiliation, which defines the realities of post-industrial (Western/Japanese) and pre-industrial (Third World) living. This explains why, after having liberated themselves of ‘White oppression’, Third World countries began to rapidly descend back into primeval savagery, and also why, after policy of multiculturalism had attained an official status in Western countries, the academic standards in these countries started to become increasingly undermined (affirmative action) – apparently, the way in which people operate with linguistic and verbal paradigms simply reflect their actual place on evolutionary ladder.

Whereas, the active vocabulary of English language is being estimated to account for approximately 300.000.000 words, the active vocabulary of most of African tribal languages and dialects rarely accounts for more than 5.000 words. In its turn, this explains why people’s average rate of IQ in such countries as Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic accounts for 40-50; whereas, when a particular Westerner scores lower then 70, while being IQ-tested, he or she gets to be immediately declared mentally deficient. Therefore, we do not agree with the foremost thesis that characterize Boasian (culturally relativist) outlook on the issue of how linguistic forms relate to people’s existential mode, expressed in his article ‘Museums of ethnology and their classification’: ‘It is my opinion that the main object of ethnological collections should be the dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes’ (1887, p. 64). Instead, we suggest that, in order for linguistic anthropologists to be able to address their professional duties with utter efficiency, they would have to adopt an evolutionary/euro-centric perspective onto a subject of their research. As Lévy-Bruhl had stated in the book from which we have already quoted: ‘Cultures of the same degree of primitiveness exhibit the same linguistic mentality, and an example taken from one can be used to elucidate a feature of the other’ (1928, p. 200). The main linguistically cognitive characteristics that set primitive languages apart from the ones that are more advanced, can be outlined as follows:

  1. The absence of covert categorization – in primitive languages, there are no contextual semantics within spoken sentences, especially if these sentences are being constructed to describe qualitative rather than purely quantitative subtleties of a particular metaphysical concept.
  2. Collective representations – the linguistic mechanics of primitive languages are being designed to negate an active stance of language carriers in their relation to the natural environment. This is why the members of indigenous tribes, whose vocabulary often amounts to as little as 1000 words, tend to refer to themselves in third person – thus, emphasizing their essential indistinguishable ness from plants and animals.
  3. Emotional intensity – the sentences in primitive languages are being constructed mainly for the purpose of revealing the emotional/mystic essence of a discussed subject matter, as opposed to defining subject matter’s structural and rational-based semiotic significance.

In regards to the second topic, which was addressed in this paper – namely, how contextual linguistics may account for establishing one’s sense of sexual identity, our conclusions can be summarized as follows:

  1. Even though in their article Cameron and Kulick have succeeded in applying a linguistics-based approach towards discussion of a sexual desire as signifier of one’s existential identity, they have failed to substantiate the methodological appropriateness of such their approach. After all, strictly Freudian outlook onto formation of one’s individuality had long ago been proven conceptually inconsistent.
  2. It is much too early to assume that one’s tendency to practice an alternative sex-style can be discussed within the context of how practitioner of this sex-style may go about attaining self-identity – it was only two years ago that the American Psychological Association had ceased referring to homosexualism as the form of mental deviation, due to considerations of political correctness. However, this does not cancel out the results of earlier empirical studies on the issue of homosexuality, according to which, people’s tendency to practice an alternative sex-style should be assessed from psychiatric perspective.
  3. Given the fact that homosexuals explore their identity within the framework of clearly sub-cultural discourse, it would be inappropriate to refer to the linguistic emanations of the process of these individuals striving to differentiate themselves from the rest of society as ‘thing in itself’, as Cameron and Kulick want us to believe. People who think that it is namely the strength/weakness of their sexual desire, which defines them as individuals, should be referred to as being endowed with ‘surrogate identity’, at best.

We believe that our discussion of both topics and also conclusions, deriving out of this discussion, fully substantiate the validity of this paper’s initial hypothesis as to the fact that it is namely the inner workings of people’s mentality, which define qualitative significance of linguistic expressions and paradigms, associated with these people’s natively spoken languages.

List of References

  1. Blommaert, J., 2005. Discourse: A critical introduction. [Online].
  2. Cameron, D. & Kulick, D., 2003. Language and sexuality. [Online].
  3. Eckert, P. & McConnell-Ginet, S., 1992. Communities of practice: Where language, gender, and power all live. [Online].
  4. Leavitt, J., 2006. Linguistic relativities. [Online].
  5. Lévy Bruhl, L., 1928. The “Soul” of the primitive. (translated by Lilian A. Clare), London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
  6. Lucy, J., 1992. Whorf’s view of the linguistic meditation of thought. [Online].
  7. Sebba, M., 2007. Identity and language construction in an online community: The case of ‘Ali G’. [Online].
  8. Whorf, B., 1956. The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language. [Online].
  9. Woolard, K., 2007. Bystanders and the linguistic construction of identity in face-to-back communication. [Online].

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