Language and identity

In discussions on languages and minorities, a link is often assumed between language, origin, culture and identity. However, the situation is far more complex, as identity is not a static notion and cannot always be linked to language or origin. People may also define their identities on the basis of religion, sexual preference, hobbies or politics for example.  Speakers of the same language do not necessarily share a culture, just think about Flanders and the Netherlands. Moreover, the aspects any person considers decisive for his or her  identity, may shift or change over time or  when s/he moves to another environment or culture.

what is identity?


The word identity is often used, but it is not easy to define. The meaning attributed to it also changes throughout time. In the nineteenth century, a fairly static idea of national identity was preferred. So when you lived in Germany for example, you spoke German and you were German, full stop. More recently, with growing globalistation, large groups of people are on the move and the link between place and identity has become less evident.

Because people are increasingly confronted with other cultures, they will also affiliate themselves more consciously with certain aspects of their background. As it happens, they may define themselves on the basis of cultural differences with other groups. So language or religion can start to play a larger role than it had done in the place of origin. Generally, ethnocultural minorities will feel a stronger need for a distinctive profile than the majority. Particularly when they feel cornered and are exposed to negative representation, they will attempt to stress a positive image, with reference to a rich culture and tradition. In extreme cases, this could lead to self stereotyping and a minority which forcefully opposes any kind of change. But because of a continual interaction between groups, cultural identity can’t possibly be ‘fixed’ and the borders between groups will shift.  A homosexual hairdresser in Istanbul will stress other aspects from a communist Turkish worker in Brussels or a highly educated female diplomat working for NATO, even though they are all Turkish nationals and speak Turkish.

the relation between language, origin and identity


When Belgium was a very young nation in the nineteenth century, its leaders favoured the idea that inhabitants of one country or nation also share one language and the same ethnocultural identity as a consequence (see > ’union fait la force). At the time, this was a reason to keep Dutch speakers from higher positions, because they would break the ‘unity’. It seems as if this has changed now that the country has become trilingual. However, Belgium has been separated along language lines, an evolution underpinned by the same principle; after all, Flemish citizens share a language: Dutch, and a culture: Flemish. For that reason they demanded self rule and, as the argument went, this could only be done in Dutch.  

Of course the reality is more complex than that. Whether language is a significant aspect of your identity, depends partly on the status of that language (see >language and status),  but not necessarily so (see >language shift). Moreover, it is possible that the original language is partly disappearing, but still plays an important symbolic role in a given ethnocultural group, think for example of Welsh in Wales. For other groups, language may originally not have been a distinctive feature at all, such as with Armenian Christians from Turkey. In Turkey, which is predominantly Muslim, they would define themselves first and foremost as Christians. When groups of them moved to Brussels in the late eighties, they felt that this was not a distinctive feature among a majority of Christians, which is why language gradually did become an important marker of their identity. The former illustrates that the relationship between language and identity is not so straightforward and constantly subject to change. When people migrate, the constant interaction between different groups causes original group borders to fade and to shift. The grandson of a Portuguese migrant in Anderlecht may feel closer to his Brussels skateboarding friends than to other Portuguese, even though they share a language.

language and group formation


Research (Janssens 2001) has shown to what extent different language groups use language as a decisive element in group formation, even though we should bear in mind that language groups are not necessarily ethnocultural groups. It turned out that language but also nationality was an important determinant for French speaking inhabitants in Brussels, making this group mainly French speaking Belgian, which is why it is not easy for non-Belgian French speakers to access this group.  Language features less heavily with Dutch speakers, but nationality is very important to them. To a lesser degree, this is also the case for bilingual French/Dutch speakers. These three >autochtonous groups also mention common interests as an indicator for group formation.

So what is important to the allochtonous population? Moroccans form into groups based on language first of all, even though social status is also significant but nationality to a lesser extent so. This indicates that being ‘Arab’ may be more significant than ‘Moroccan’. The Moroccan population is becoming more and more heterogeneous, interest in religion and politics is also higher than for the average Brussels citizen. The latter is also the case for the Turkish population, who on the other hand also stress nationality, which explains a close Turkish community. The results for Southern Europeans illustrate a heterogeneous group, for whom language and nationality are less important than common interests and social status., The Northern Europeans finally, mark their groups based on social status, while politics also scores higher than average.

language and ëthe othersí

Rudi Janssens (2001) questioned people in Brussels about how they would typify the other language groups. He put together a number of parameters in order to gain an impression of the stereotypes that exist about ‘the others’. These are undoubtedly simplistic generalisations, but they provide a good insight into how language groups perceive each other. Generally we can see that Belgians are attributed with more positive characteristics than non-Belgians.

“French speakers in Brussels and Wallonia are experienced as the most tolerant, followed by Brussels Dutch speakers and the Flemish, followed at a considerable distance by Moroccans, eurocrats and Turkish people. The scores for friendliness are less high, but follow the same pattern. Finally, we get a separation whereby Brussels French speakers and Walloons are seen as humourous and Dutch speakers and Flemish considered hard working and multilingual. The rest of Brussels inhabitants score low on these three characteristics.”
“The predicates stupid and dishonest are the least often attributed, with only negative peaks for the Walloons and Moroccans. All groups score higher in egocentrism than in the two previous characteristics and, even though differentiation amongst the groups is small, there is a general tendency to give lower scores to migrant communities, which makes egocentrism first and foremost a ‘western’ characteristic. The largest differences can be observed for the characteristics of arrogance and threat. Arrogance seems to be mainly a matter for non-French speakers, with Moroccans and eurocrats seen as the most arrogant of the Brussels population. People feel mostly threatened by Moroccans. Turkish and Flemish people evoke a feeling of threat to a lesser extent. It is remarkable that for this last characteristic, 10% of all Brussels inhabitants with a Dutch background regard the Flemish as threatening and that this group only considers Moroccans a bigger threat.”

source: Rudi Janssens (2001:185)

question 12

Why do you think that some regard the Flemish as threathening?  >Answer

language and status

The status and the evolution of the Dutch language in Brussels are a nice illustration of how language, identity and status are interrelated (see also >worldcentre). Dutch was about to become extinct in Brussels, but in the meantime, it has built up a very solid position, strenghtened by Flanders’ economical boom. If you measure the status of a language by its official recognition, French and Dutch are high on the ladder, as they are the only languages allowed in the local administration and education. Languages that have a fixed place in the school curriculum also obtain a high status, because they are taught and spoken outside the region(s) of its native speakers. Apart from that, you can also consider the various domains in which a language is used and whether the language produces any cultural output. A last aspect can be whether a language is a determining factor to be included in a certain group (see also >language and group formation).

On the basis of these parameters, French scores very high, as it is spoken and taught all over the world, has a rich cultural production and history and is used by a vast majority of people in Brussels in a wide range of situations. English also has a high status, because even though it isn’t an official language, its use is very widespread and it is often used in professional domains. Dutch doesn’t do so badly either, although it is of course less widespread and it is not the first choice for foreigners in Brussels. The Southern European languages carry a certain flair because of their international presence, particularly Spanish and Italian, which are often taught at Brussels schools. On the other hand, these groups are not particularly attached to their language when forming their communities. Speakers of Turkish on the other hand may often belong to lower social classes, but the status of their language within their own community is very high. As a consequence, the language does not lose its vitality. (see also >language shift).