Lanehart – The Language of Identity

Lanehart, Sonja L. “The Language of Identity.” Journal of English Linguistics (1996): 322-31. Print.

In this article Sonja Lanehart argued that language is not just a means of communication, but a choice of expression that can reflect “solidarity, resistance, and identity within a culture” (322). In essence, our linguistic choices reflect our goals, possible selves, and identity. In terms of rhetorical theory, Lanehart’s most compelling claim was that speakers align their language with those that they wish to be identified with, even if that language community is not present; therefore, those that a speaker seeks to identify with may be distinct from the speaker’s audience. Sub-conscious choices of “language-minority speakers” become conscious once these speakers become aware of their difference and see its value (whether it is positive or negative):

We choose to move in one direction or another (e.g. toward family or community or school). Whichever direction we choose, we are still transacting with other entities in our linguistic context that help define and shape what our current or now selves are as well as our future possible selves (325).

She continued, that:

Choosing to speak only African American English means choosing community over assimilation (327).

Lanehart also asserted that due to societal attitudes regarding linguistic variation, sometimes the choice is between community and real or perceived job opportunities and economic success. She concluded that the issue is not whether or not African Americans should or should not use standard English (SE), or whether or not White American should or should not use SE or African American English (AAE), but that language use is a choice and that choice has been historically restricted for African Americans. This restriction based on the belief that AAE is inferior, she maintained is not acceptable. She argued that American education would benefit from pre-service teachers being required to know about varieties of American English to avoid requiring students to displace their own language(s).

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