Looking at American Identity/-ies through the Lens of a Linguist

By Kristin Berberich and Aline Schmidt

What Americans value, what Americans are, what America is – all of these are questions related to identity and drive much of American Studies scholarship. Aiming to understand “America” means coming to terms with the ways ideas about American identity and the multiplicity of its representations are claimed and contested. One entryway into this issue is language. Identity, language, and social reality are inseparably linked with each other: through language we express ourselves individually, and through language we express ourselves as a group. Language is not merely reflective of reality, but its most powerful function is creating reality itself. Although linguistics is not part of the conventional theoretical and methodological canon of American Studies, we would like to offer some insights into how this disciplinary angle can help in tackling these fundamental questions of Americanness. Scholars working in American Studies “share a dynamic commitment to democratic inquiry rather than a universally agreed upon canon of required methods or venerated works.” (Lipsitz 2015: 1) The study of language, that is, the study of both its form and its function, is a valuable complement for this interdisciplinary paradigm because it engages with social and cultural issues on a different level by bringing language into focus as a maker and mediator of the world and as an “extraordinarily sensitive index of social relationships, processes and developments” (Blommaert 2015: 12) – all of which ties in closely with the inquiry of American identity / identities.

The term “American identity” might suggest that identity is a homogeneous, uncontested thing. Reality, however, is much more complex. American identity may pertain to a national identity, the nation’s self-image. Crafting and articulating an inclusive national self-image for a multicultural society is a challenging yet crucial task, one that is particularly important for an American president: he must “continuously address a fixed set of beliefs that establish a cultural base for the development of the nation’s self-image. At the same time, this common ground also serves as a major unifying factor, central to the stability of the American covenant (Austermühl 2014: 279) In order to be successful, the president must be an authentic, convincing representation of the nation’s core values and ideas “in ways that will be accepted as obvious, even inevitable.” (Stuckey 2004: 2) At the same time, national identity is important because it functions as a way for individuals to “stabilize their identities” (Hall 1991: 12) through membership in a group. Language, in turn, plays a fundamental role in maintaining and creating such larger collectives like the nation. However, a nation is comprised of multiple, multi-faceted identities that challenge the stabilizing and unifying function of the nation that holds people together. If the nation as a common denominator can persist, and is not to be hollowed out by identity politics, as Francis Fukuyama (2018) would suggest, it is crucial to look more closely at how this battle for the “American identity” – whatever it may be – is waged with words. In the following, we sketch out two dimensions where language and identity interface. We begin by looking at the idea of a collective national identity and highlight one way of including and excluding people from the national collective through language. Our second focal point is language use itself: we discuss instances of how linguistic identities are politicized in everyday life, and how language attitudes and ideologies impact the social reality of (racially) marginalized groups. In doing so, we shine a light on how the inquiry into language, down to its structural make-up, can prove useful in learning about the processes that make (or break) American identities.

Constructing a National Identity

“National identity”, according to Ruth Wodak and her colleagues, is “the product of discourse” (Wodak et al. 1999: 22). It comes into existence through a rich repertoire of cultural symbols, through myths and narrations, which are “brought forth, reproduced and disseminated by actors in concrete (institutional) contexts” (ibid.: 23) In the U.S., the president plays a key role in this construction. Particularly presidential speeches are “a tightly woven web of American cultural texts” (Austermühl 2014: 7) that transport national and cultural ideas and ideals. Trump’s 2020 Fourth of July speech illustrates how a collective identity is formed and affirmed by tapping into culturally shared knowledge, and how it simultaneously undermines other identities by excluding certain groups from the story.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump participate in a Fourth of July celebration Friday, July 3, 2020, at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

With the Founding Fathers overlooking the scene at Mt Rushmore at this year’s Fourth of July celebrations, President Trump paid “tribute to the exceptional lives and extraordinary legacies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt”. Independence Day is historically and culturally of high significance, and how it is commemorated by the president carries immense symbolic value. “There could be no better place to celebrate America’s independence than beneath this magnificent, incredible, majestic mountain and monument to the greatest Americans who have ever lived”, Trump said. Indeed, for the sake of meaning-making, the historic site was a powerful place to stage his speech on Independence Day. The architectural scenery and landscape, the musical accompaniment, the Reds, Whites, and Blues decorating the stage, the fireworks – they all serve to tell and retell a particular story of Americanness. From a linguistic viewpoint, the President’s speech is the centerpiece of this “complex multimodal ceremony” (Reisigl 2018: 374), using language to merge national symbols, customs, and traditions. Traditionally, presidents’ Independence Day speeches serve the purpose of uniting the American people under one idea of America – except that Trump failed to (or did not even intend to) unite. Trump’s speech, in line with traditional presidential Fourth of July speeches, is a declaration of American Identity – but what stood out was the divisiveness of his language, and the rejection of diversity – and, along with that, the rejection of a multifaceted collective American identity.

Trump presents himself as an authentic member of this nation and an upholder of “American values” by reproducing a key national discourse. For this purpose, language provides anchors in time through references to historic ideals and the legacy of the Founding Fathers that should be upheld, as well as through references to visions of American Greatness and lived patriotism. However, the thrust of authenticity is that “it draws a contrast both internally between a present reality and some imagined or lost original or ideal […] and externally, between the upholders of this ideal and the inauthenticity of those whose beliefs or practices appear to deviate from it or threaten it – a category it calls into being for exactly this purpose.” (Gill 2014: 329) This becomes apparent in Trump’s references to the present where he evokes images of violence and threats to the proclaimed ideals of the past and his bright visions of the future:

And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure. Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.  Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them. 

(Remarks by President Trump at South Dakota’s 2020 Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration, July 3, 2020)

Ultimately, the question of what ‘America’ means is also the question of who is a legitimate citizen, an authentic member of the national imagined community – and, more importantly, the question of who is not. Trump serves the identity question by tapping into a powerful ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ strategy, feeding the right-wing discourse of a liberal threat to authentic American values. The pronoun we in his references to our history, our heroes, our values, our children lacks a clear referent and allows an interpretation of who is part of this ‘we’ in the first place. Placed in the context of American Independence Day, the speech, given at the foot of Mount Rushmore, suggests that the pronoun is a form of the synecdochic or metonymic historical ‘we’, which “[encompasses] a trans-generational political (often national) community that includes persons from several centuries” (Reisigl 2018: 370). The ideological implication is strong: those who are on Trump’s side are on the side of the Founding Fathers and on the side of America; those who oppose him are essentially anti-American. Trump’s commemoration of Independence Day is thus at the same time integrative and disintegrative. This strategic function is rooted in “the Janus-faced process of identity formation: identity always relies both on sameness or similarity, and difference, distinction or diversification against others”. (ibid.)

Identity as a Site of Social Struggle

Language, identity, and belonging interface in many ways: while language constructs an identity through narratives of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and of a particular history and identity, language itself is also highly politicized. Trump’s political discourse suggests that the American People are a homogeneous entity, and those who deviate from this ideal are to be erased from national discourse. This is not only happening in highly mediatized contexts of presidential performance but permeates policies as well as everyday practices.

Even seemingly mundane instances of language use can be insightful and become meaningful with regard to the contested social and cultural landscape of the United States. One reason for this is the interrelatedness between language and identity: language is not directly causally related to identity but, along with other semiotic practices, is used to (co-)create and perform identities (Bucholtz and Hall 2005; Tajfel and Turner 1986). For example, the use of particular phonological variables such as pitch and timbre can lead to a speaker being recognized as belonging to the identity category ‘female’. Thus, language is a site of social struggle, and a struggle for the legitimacy of heterogeneous identities.

In this vein, identities do not exist in a vacuum. They are stratified and contribute to societal stratification. As Judith Butler (1997: 5) convincingly argues, “the subordination of the subject takes place through language”. Societal stratification is upheld, in part, by how certain linguistic varieties are perceived. Although the beginnings of such sociolinguistic endeavors lay in dialectology, the study of regional and social variation, much of this branch of linguistics now also focuses on larger meaning-making structures and the effects they have for their speakers in society. Sociolinguistic variation matters greatly because “every sociolinguistic difference may be turned into a feature of social inequality.” Let us give you a few examples that speak to this point which are particularly striking from the perspective of a linguist.

Linguistic Diversity Turned into Social Inequality

The ways in which individuals speak, for example using features of different (read: non-standard) dialects or accents, impact how they are perceived by others. This, in turn, has severe consequences on educational outcomes for younger speakers, and professional outcomes for older ones. One lasting stereotype is that non-standard varieties like African-American English (AAE) are less grammatically sophisticated than standard ones. Spoiler alert: they are most definitely not, as studies like this one on habitual be show (Jackson and Green 2005). This also lays bare a certain double standard in the way we reward speech. Which first or second language is a ‘good’ one? Is being a bilingual Spanish and English speaker regarded as highly as being a bilingual French and English speaker (check out the NYT Podcast Nice White Parents that discusses this question in their first episode)? As you can see, linguistic difference can have social consequences.

An Oakland study has shown that police officers use less respectful language in encounters with non-white people. Court testimonies of dialect speakers are dismissed as incomprehensible and lacking in credibility, with severe consequences for those on trial, as this study on a witness in the trial against the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin shows. Likewise, standard American English speakers have an advantage in access to housing, for example. In her forthcoming study that builds on work by Purnell et al. (1999), Kelly Wright from the University of Michigan has found evidence for dialect discrimination in the housing market (check out her slides on linguistic discrimination). This means that some racial and regional identities, as perceived from the variety of English spoken, affect access to (different types of) housing. Her work suggests that there were significant differences in how a person interested in renting an apartment was treated by a real estate attorney depending on the variety they spoke upon calling (African American, Standard American, Southern American). To be clear, this behavior constitutes a violation of The Fair Housing Act (1968).

The popular suggestion that standard dialect training (“Speak English, we’re in America!”) may help to improve this situation can be dismissed outright – dialect training does not fix linguistic prejudice in the minds of the hearers. Neither do cries for the adoption of a certain language fix issues that effectively bar people from participation in (some parts) of society based on their language: Think of voter suppression through English literacy tests in the mid-20th century, think of important public health information not reaching everyone because it is only offered in English. Becoming more accepting of multiple co-existing individual identity groups and their diverse needs also begins with being more inclusive (linguistically) to allow for full participation in a multi-racial democracy.

Photo by Toa Heftiba via unsplash.

To be sure, this is by far not an exhaustive list of the societal aspects and categories connected to linguistic diversity and social inequalities. We did not touch upon gender, on issues of education, etc. This does not mean that there are no other realms that could be productively analyzed through the lens of language. To the contrary, social inequalities are (re-)produced through language attitudes and ideologies on many more levels of society. In the above examples, we highlighted two distinct targets of linguists: strategic linguistic performances that are utilized to rally around a certain identity category, and those everyday mundane linguistic practices that are taken to index another identity (Silverstein 2003), on the basis of which individuals experience linguistic discrimination or profiling (Baugh 2017).

American Studies Benefits from Linguistics

Beyond language attitudes and their consequences, social beliefs are transported through language – in media texts, in legislation, in press releases, corporate documents – or preisdential speeches. These are just a few ways in which ideologies and implicit biases can be evoked upon hearing or speaking a particular variety of a language – but highly consequential ones. Taking seriously the small building blocks of everyday interaction, the foundation of more over-arching discourses, can provide a unique and empirically sustained look at American society and its discontents. Understanding these individual identities and how they are constructed in particular contexts and, crucially, how they connect to a larger more fragile national identity, is one of the key concerns of American Studies:

Many of the most generative frameworks and paradigms in American Studies have emanated from contradictions between the national culture’s bright promises and its bitter betrayals, from the paradox of the state’s proclamation of a Manifest Destiny characterized by conquest and colonization and the simultaneous existence and persistence of what Toni Cade Bambara describes as the people’s Latent Destiny as authors and architects of egalitarian ideas and institutions. Confronting these cruel contradictions and painful paradoxes has made American Studies into a never completed work of living sculpture, a place where strangers can meet, where ideas are aired, where problems are diagnosed and where solutions are imagined, envisioned and enacted.

(Lipsitz 2015: 2)

If we want to learn more about these paradoxes and how they are negotiated every day, about how those formally in power strive to define who is an authentic member of an imagined (national) community, it is necessary to look at language. Not just at the words that are used, but at how they are combined to introduce additional evaluative elements or to index, that is, to use them to point to a certain category in the world.

“The key paradigms in American Studies have emerged from social upheavals and crisis”, (Lipsitz 2015: 1) and looking at language can offer answers to “non-disciplinary” and “social-scientific questions” (Blommaert 2005: 237) emerging from these paradigms. It takes a trained eye to be able to spot patterns that point to mental representations or that maintain prejudice or harmful ideologies in language. But is not so much of what we look at as data in American Studies language, and would an awareness of the existence and workings of such macro-structures embedded in language not be helpful to dive deeper into American culture?

As scholars trained in linguistics, we strongly believe that we could understand the present better if we looked more closely at the “patterns of representation that contribute to a binary construction of ‘us’ and ‘them’” (Lindgren 2009: 66) that are so frequently taken up and repeated by politicians and the media. Knowing what it is that keeps people apart in discourse is one step closer to knowing how to start moving towards one another. Linguistics as a “social science of language-in-society” (Blommaert 2005: 235) can help us doing so.

Kristin Berberich is a doctoral researcher at the HCA’s graduate training center “Authority and Trust” (GKAT). In her dissertation, she analyzed the discursive construction of neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Kristin has previously contributed to this blog: Check out her posts on transport justice and cycling safety in Brooklyn, learn more about Brooklyn’s queer history, or find out what graduates can learn from Michelle Obama’s Becoming here. Feel free to get in touch on Twitter.

Aline Schmidt is currently a collegiate of the research training group “Authority & Trust” at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. In her PhD project, she looks at charisma from a pragmatic-linguistic perspective and analyzes the ways in which Donald Trump’s authority is constructed in language, with a particular focus on the role of social media discourse. She is a founding member of the HCA Graduate Blog and has previously contributed an article on the importance of language in times of a pandemic. You can get in touch with her on Twitter.


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Header Image: Neon artwork by Tim Etchell, Onassis Cultural Center, Athens, Greece. Photo by Alexandra via unsplash.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
The Editors (December 2, 2020). Looking at American Identity/-ies through the Lens of a Linguist. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved July 12, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg52

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