The eus multilingual reality and european identity debate essay sample


Language use is fundamental to the creation and expression of social identity and difference, and the translation of cultures has always depended on understanding the complexities of language use in other social worlds. Such understanding is crucial even in the work of anthropologists who would not describe themselves as ‘ linguists’: the analysis of kinship systems, for example, depends on a sophisticated understanding of the way that terms of reference and address both classify social relationships and pattern social interaction.

Contemporary ethnographic linguists are driven by functional questions regarding the role of linguistic interaction in expressing social identity and shaping value. Research into the pragmatics of language use suggests that people not only speak about the world ‘ out there’; they also create a good deal of their social reality in the very act of speaking (Silverstein 1979). Thus the acquisition of a language is not only the internalization of a linguistic code, but also entails the learning of status and role, of appropriate social affect, and (ultimately) of a worldview. Language provides both the foundation of a shared cultural identity and the means for the reproduction of social difference.

Languages in their variability and diversity are profoundly social. Sapir  (1949) emphasized this fact when he defined language as ‘ a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions, and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols’ and as ‘ the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations. Since, ultimately, each language is both an abstraction from and a classification of experience, each gives ‘ predetermined form’ to the symbolic expression of its speakers.

Sapir (1949) and Whorf (1964) were among those who developed a linguistic relativism based on the premises that language shaped worldview, while rejecting the assumption that the languages used by members of technologically less advanced and non-literate societies were inferior vehicles for conception.

With economic multinationalism as the driving force pointing to convergence in an intercultural context and the growing practice of enterprise-based training in world-wide undertakings, a case has to be made out for a distinctive European education which does not assume the emergence of a European super-state. Indeed, since the dismantling of member states’ national systems of education is unlikely, a European dimension with global perspectives may have to be placed beside each national and regional education system, enabling it to assume the supra-national features necessary for more efficient joint economic and political activity and as a sign of international understanding in the multilingual, European and global reality. Since Language Awareness is an intercultural curriculum dimension sensitizing learners to language functions, its structures and varieties, it has a role to play in the intercultural considerations of a European education in a multilingual Europe, encouraging tolerance and an involvement in the acquisition of language and a willing acceptance of language users.


Although the way in which language evolved may be unclear, it is clear that language has changed since its first appearance. Many languages are related to each other. This relation is apparent in the similarity of many of the words of some languages (e. g. “ mother” in English is “ Mutter” in German, “ moeder” in Dutch, “ mère” in French, “ maht” in Russian, and “ mata” in Sanskrit). More detailed analyses like this have shown that most of the languages of Europe, and parts of west Asia, derive from a common source called protoEuropean. All the languages that are derived from this common source are therefore called IndoEuropean. Indo-European has a number of main branches: the Romance (such as French, Italian, and Spanish), the Germanic (such as German, English, and Dutch), and the Indian languages. (There are some languages that are European but that are not part of the Indo-European family. Finnish and Hungarian are part of the Finno-Ugric family, which is related to Japanese. Basque is unrelated to any other language.)

Languages change over relatively short time spans. Clearly Chaucerian and Elizabethan English are substantially different from modern English, and even Victorian speakers would sound decidedly archaic to us today. We coin new words or new uses of old words when necessary. Whole words drop out of usage (“ thee” and “ thou”), and we lose the meanings of some words, sometimes over short time spans-I can’t remember the last time I had to give a measurement in rods or chains. We borrow words from other languages (“ cafe” from French, “ potato” from Haiti, and “ shampoo” from India). Sounds change in words (“ sweetard” becomes “ sweetheart”). Words are sometimes even created almost by error: “ pea” was back-formed from “ pease” as people started to think (incorrectly) that “ pease” was plural.

Differences between languages should not be glossed over. Although they have arisen over a relatively short time compared with the evolution of humans, we cannot assume that there are no processing differences between speakers of different languages. Whereas it is likely that the bulk of the mechanisms involved is the same, there might be some differences. This is most apparent in the processing of written or printed words. Writing is a recent development compared with speech, and while visual word processing might be derived from object recognition, there might also be important differences. There are important differences in the way that different written languages map written symbols into sounds. Nevertheless, there is an important core of psychological mechanisms that appears to be common to the processing of all languages.

Language and World View

The first generation of American ethnographic linguists asserted strong links between language and worldview. They suggested not only that language channels perception, but also that it contains the ‘ genius’ of the people who use it as their means of verbal expression. The view that language was essential to the continuation of the unique identity and destiny of a group was fundamental to the German Romanticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Divorced from its evolutionist and nationalist matrix, this perspective influenced the formation of Boasian anthropology, with its emphasis on the mastery of American Indian languages (ironically, in a period of widespread language extinction). In particular, the argument that a language shapes its speakers more than its speakers shape language (that ‘ language speaks man’ in Heidegger’s felicitous expression) is one that recurs repeatedly in studies of language and worldview. The emphasis given to language by Boas and his students led to the establishment of ‘ linguistic anthropology’ in North American universities as one of the four basic subfields of the discipline, together with cultural anthropology, archaeology, and physical anthropology.

In a relativistic inversion of earlier evolutionist arguments,  Sapir (1949a) and Whorf (1964) promoted an appreciation of the formal elegance of non-Western languages as vehicles for thought, and Whorf reversed evolutionist schemes when he praised Hopi representations of time as truer analyses of temporal experience than the objectifications of ‘ Standard Average European’.

As Sapir observed, ‘ the world of our experiences must be enormously simplified and generalized before it is possible to make a symbolic inventory of all our experiences of things and relations and this inventory is imperative before we can convey ideas’. A community of speakers must agree tacitly to a classification of experience if they are to communicate, and this classification forms a foundation for their worldview.

Not surprisingly, anthropologists often analyze society and culture through the prism of language. Much work in the field of symbolic anthropology in fact entails analysis of the linguistic metaphors that inform classification, ritual practice, and concepts of the person.

The combination of cultural unity with linguistic diversity in other areas has been commented on by anthropologists notably in the United States. The California case was cited by Sapir ( 1921: 214 ) as illustrating his point that “ language and culture are not intrinsically related.” He noted that speakers of the clearly unified Athabascan language family adapted themselves, evidently with considerable speed, to four very different culture areas of North America.

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘ real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached. (Sapir 1958 [1929], p. 69)

The basis of the Sapir-Whorf or Whorfian hypothesis, is compared to the previous quotation, a certain discrepancy is quite evident. If the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is maintained, then the Yurok, for example, are seen as being “ at the mercy of” their Algonkian-like linguistic heritage; the Smith River.  This is reasonable in terms of Whorf’s specific recognition ( 1941: 91 ) that linguistic structures and other cultural patterns “ have grown up together, constantly influencing each other.” The mutual assimilation of languages under the influence of a broader cultural unity is, of course, observable in

Although the cultural nationalists are not a homogeneous group, the largest and most influential cultural-nationalist tendency argues that the imposition of European languages was indispensable in the colonization of the African mind and that mental decolonization must involve the retrieval of indigenous African languages and their use in the most important aspects of African civil life. This conception has two sources, one theoretical and the other historical. The first source is what can be called the “ relativist conception of language,” which was associated with both Edward Sapir, a pioneer American linguist, and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, a fire insurance agent who in the 1930s became a major theorist of the relation between language and culture (Sapir, 1949; Whorf, 1987).

Linguistic relativity is the view that language is a reservoir of culture, which means that the form and structure of one’s language affects our perception and action in a culturally specific manner. Most disturbingly, it implies that there is a culturally bound “ tyranny of language,” for the grammatical and semantic structure of one’s language–which most speakers acquire and use unconsciously–determines and limits one’s ability to think or act. Edward Sapir argued that human beings are very much at the mercy of their society’s linguistic medium of communication and that the social world is built on the language habits of the group. In his view, no two languages are sufficiently similar to be able to represent the same social reality.

Sapir Whorf Hypothesis and European Identity

Although Edward Sapir was quite interested in the relation between language, culture, and cognition, it was his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, who was the strongest proponent of linguistic relativity. Whorf based his view on his perception of fundamental semantic and grammatical differences between European languages and Native American languages. He observed that European languages tend to objectify and reify emotions, abstractions, and psychological states. But in Hopi, the indigenous American language he studied most intensively, Whorf claimed, one cannot objectify abstract spiritual processes ( Whorf, 1987: 134-59).

Whorf also claimed that European languages are based on a linear conception of time which dissects temporality into separate segments–“ the Past,” “ the Present,” and “ the Future.” He noted that time itself is objectified or “ spatialized” in European languages. An English speaker says that people “ lose time” as they lose money, “ gain time” as they gain strength, and “ waste time” as they waste a bar of soap in washing. But in the Hopi language, Whorf claimed, time had a circular character: one does not “ lose” a Friday, if nothing was done on Friday, because Friday will return. These contrasting views of time, Whorf argued, had a major impact on the behavior of European language speakers and Native Americans which is clearly seen in their contrasting attitudes to work and planning ( Whorf, 1987: 134-59). Whorf’s followers extended

his efforts by investigating these linguistic differences in other languages and cultures besides those of the Native Americans.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had an influence on African cultural nationalists, who sought a cause-and-effect relationship between European languages and mental colonization and, conversely, between African languages and decolonization. One of the most prominent advocates of linguistic relativity is Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a distinguisted creative writer and a political activist. In Decolonizing the Mind ( 1986), Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues that the domination of a people’s language by the language of the colonizing nation is central to the domination of the mental universe of the colonized. His claim can be seen as an application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, although Sapir and Whorf and other linguistic relativists were interested in how different languages condition the worldviews of their respective native speakers. African cultural nationalists such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o made a cross-cultural leap by suggesting that the worldview inherent in any particular language can be transposed to speakers of other unrelated languages. It is supposedly in this way that the European worldview came to exercise its domination over the collective mind of the African people.

This cultural nationalist current might be the strongest in terms of adherents, but it is the weakest in terms of its theoretical argument. The SapirWhorf hypothesis or, equivalently, the theory of linguisitic relativity, which is presupposed by these cultural nationalists, has been invalidated by linguistic research. In modern American linguistics, there has been a search for language universals (i. e., common traits of all languages), spurred by the work of Noam Chomsky. This quest has led to research of numerous languages throughout the world. As a result, a large amount of data has been accumulated that questions the notion of a one-to-one correlation between language and cultural perception. For example, some of the features that Whorf thought were peculiar to Native American languages and explained both their perception of the world and their behavior, have been found to exist in European languages.

In general, the overwhelming evidence presented so far in support of linguistic-cultural relativity has been at the lexical level. The general thrust of evidence has been of a contrastive nature between languages, and it has taken the following form. Language X has three terms, while language Y has only one or no equivalent term for phenomenon Z. But in virtually all such cases, it is not difficult to relate the linguistic contrasts to environmental differences. There are good reasons why, in terms of semantic nuances, Somalis should be more interested in camels and Maasai in cows than English speakers would be. Certainly, for those Somalis and Maasai who continue to live as pastoralists, such semantic nuances are of significant cultural value. But the effect that such lexical structures would have on a cosmopolitan Somali or Maasai is not easy to determine. It is reasonable to assume, however, that it would not be the same as the effect it would have on their more traditional compatriots despite the linguistic commonality.

Proponents of the Whorfian hypothesis, however, associate linguistic relativity not only with lexical differences between languages, but also with structural or grammatical aspects. In its crudest form, the argument at this level proposes a relationship between the structure of language and the structure of cultural behavior. Linguists sympathetic to the Whorfian hypothesis have so far found it an uphill task, however, to isolate the grammatical features that might be said to have specific cultural and, therefore, behavioral correlates. It is the empirical vacuousness of the Whorfian hypothesis that led Wallace Lambert to conclude, after some thirty years of research on the social importance of language, “ I have come to question the very commonly held notion that culture and/or language really affects personality. I am inclined rather to the position that culture and language may affect styles of expression, but likely not basic personality dynamics. Similarly, I am not persuaded by the evidence available that language or culture have any real impact on thought” ( Lambert, 1979: 186-87).

Thus, it is still not clear in what sense our indigenous languages, even if they are idealistically static enough to maintain the purity of “ traditional” cultures in their expression, are supposed to spare us the onslaught of imperialist culture in psychosocial and material terms. The bulk of existing evidence would seem to demonstrate that, in its expression, language is largely influenced by material conditions, which forge specific perceptions of the world around us. Language might have some influence on perception, but languageengineering efforts in several parts of the world have shown that language’s influence on perception can be counteracted. As material conditions change, and with them our perception of the world, so does language at its symbolic level. Thus, to expect that any African language, merely by virtue of its Africanness, can control social change and perception in a liberative sense, in the wake of rapid economic transformations, is to expect of it a role that is well beyond its potential.

Intercultural education and European pedagogy

It will most likely always be possible to distinguish teachers’ different nationalities by their general national ‘ mannerisms’ as well as their professional preference for pupil-centred or teacher-dominated teaching approaches. The class teachers’ role in a multiethnic situation must be that of an expert intercultural practitioner who can act for the whole multicultural group, requiring both a systematic theoretical and a practical preparation.

Interdependence, a two-way traffic from group to group and group to teacher in a classroom of pupils with an equal claim to time and resources, is the key to intercultural pedagogy. Personal experience acquired through participation in exchanges enables intercultural expertise to develop.

The curricular elements suggested in the European dimension defined earlier must be practised by the teachers themselves. They will be expected to have a global outlook and to teach across European borders. At least an acquaintance with some European languages or linguistic facts and a language awareness, are essential.

The acquisition of a multicultural and multilingual view of Europe is an integral part of factual knowledge of the continent, which includes one’s own member state. Intercultural teaching is cooperative teaching free of bias and prejudice, giving pupils the opportunity to study ethnic materials and to learn about the cultures around them 40 and to acquire indispensable European travel skills.

The European Association of Teachers (AEDE), the Association for Teacher Education in Europe (ATEE) and the European Secondary Heads Association have taken initiatives to develop practical approaches to intercultural teaching. The European skills suggested above are part of a European pedagogy to be used by the growing numbers of what will be ethnic teachers teaching in multiethnic classrooms. So far, research conducted on European topics has not included an explicit European pedagogy.

‘ The principle of subsidiarity  will become a pedagogic medium’ appropriates the socio-economic priorities of the Community for creating a new identity for Europe, not in the sense of one nation stronger than the others but ‘ as an economic and political space shedding hidebound national traditions and prejudices in which distinct, original initiatives can be developed by Europeans for the benefit of the European Union as a whole’, with the help of available European Union facilities.

The new pedagogy assumes starting with the providers and recipients of education and training. There are dangers of a European super-state which would destroy the equilibrium between central and peripheral responsibility; this may arise despite restrictions placed on excessive Community involvement.

Unifying European super-values subsumes those of individual member states, the new component being the adoption of an autonomous, overarching supra-national position which supplants the outdated, national forms of thinking and doing.

Recognition given to the ‘ regions’ is a feature of the European Union. The Committee of the Regions attempts to bring Europe closer to Europeans by placing decision making in matters of politics, economy, employment and ecology, health and education at the centre of local activity, encouraging a ‘ bottom-up’ collaboration in matters which affect their everyday lives and open to innovatory practice in the region, with regional legislation approving and financing socially and economically valuable projects for regional development.

Sapir Whorf hypothesis and George Orwell’s

Orwell’s Newspeak defies the rules of actual language development: even supporters of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would hesitate to assert that an artificial language of limited (and declining) expressive power could actually be legislated into common use, let alone supplant organic languages. Burgess’s Nadsat is not truly a language, merely a small vocabulary of twisted Russian words fitted into the structures of English. On the other hand, Elgin’s Láadan is perfectly constructed as a workable language–but it makes only a few token appearances in Native Tongue and The Judas Rose. Its importance lies in its existence among the women of the Lines, rather than its form.

Walter Meyers, in his study, Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction ( 1980), advances some reasons for this ostensible lack. Science fiction authors may safely assume a certain amount of scientific education on the part of their readers, but they cannot expect even a minor degree of linguistic training in more than a small fraction of their potential readership.

Most readers are unlikely to possess sufficient linguistic knowledge to distinguish between accurate and erroneous language extrapolation. Given the significant degree of overlap between science fiction and dystopian fiction, it seems reasonable to expand Meyers’s assertion to include dystopia as well as science fiction. Furthermore, Meyers’s plausibility theory–under which the appearance of plausibility is more important than adherence to facts–holds as strongly for linguistic knowledge as for any other empirical scholarship. While there are a few science fiction and dystopian writers who take pains to adhere faithfully to contemporary linguistic understanding in their fictions, such writers represent the exception rather than the rule.  How do we reconcile the crucial importance of language in dystopian fiction with the marginalization of actual linguistic knowledge and practice? If the idea of language is so important in dystopian fiction, why do a representative group of such fictions reveal so little attention to real languages and linguistic structures?

In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, language restricted the way in which people thought. The rulers of the state deliberately used “ Newspeak”, the official language of Oceania, so that the people thought what they were required to think. “ This statement…could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available” (Orwell, 1949).

The central idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that the form of our language determines the structure of our thought processes. Language affects the way we remember things and the way in which we perceive the world. It was originally proposed by a linguist, Edward Sapir, and a fire insurance engineer and amateur linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf. Although Whorf is most closely associated with anthropological evidence based on the study of American Indian languages, the idea came to him from his work in fire insurance. He noted that accidents sometimes happened because, he thought, people were misled by words-as in the case of a worker who threw a cigarette end into what he considered to be an “ empty” drum of petrol. Far from being empty, the drum was full of petrol vapour, with explosive results.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comprises two related ideas. First, linguistic determinism is the idea that the form and characteristics of our language determine the way in which we think, remember, and perceive. Second, linguistic relativism is the idea that as different languages map onto the world in different ways, different languages will generate different cognitive structures.

Evaluation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

In recent years, in fact, the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has enjoyed something of a resurgence. There is now a considerable amount of evidence suggesting that linguistic factors can affect cognitive processes. Even colour perception and memory, once thought to be completely biologically determined, show some influence of language. Furthermore, recent research on perception and categorization has shown that high-level cognitive processes can influence the creation of low-level visual features early in visual processing (Schyns, Goldstone, & Thibaut, 1998). This is entirely consistent with the idea that in at least some circumstances, language might be able to influence perception.

Indeed, it is hardly surprising that if a thought expressible in one language cannot be expressed so easily in another, then that difference will have consequences for the ease with which cognitive processes can be acquired and carried out. Having one word for a concept instead of having to use a whole sentence might reduce memory load. The differences in number systems between languages form one example of how linguistic differences can lead to slight differences in cognitive style.

The extent to which people find the SapirWhorf hypothesis plausible depends on the extent to which they view language as an evolutionarily late mechanism that merely translates our thoughts into a format suitable for communication, rather than a rich symbolic system that underlies most of cognition. It is also more plausible in a cognitive system with extensive feedback from later to earlier levels of processing.


In the academic debate over the influence of the EU, these findings suggest that the institution has been surprisingly successful in its efforts to establish an identity that competes with time-honored national ones. This, however, does not necessarily mean that a “ Chinese box” of ready-formed identities are winning the day with Europeans, that the new Europe will in any way be defined narrowly by religious, linguistic or cultural affiliation. These studies instead amply demonstrate that identity change at the micro-level is not neat but gloriously messy. There was little agreement among these participants about what a European identity is.

This is not to claim that in other countries people have not adopted this doctrine, or that there are not many in Europe who do adhere to it but were not discovered in these studies. After all, as pointed out often in this volume, Q methodology does not claim to say anything about percentages of the general population that follow the factors of opinion uncovered in a study.

It does nonetheless suggest that by and large Europeans express a variety of opinions about their attachments, and that is significant. This is, after all, a continent whose image suggests strong national identities as central for its citizens. If the case is not strong for so many Europeans in these studies, that could cast doubt on notions that national identity is the dominant identity for all people everywhere. We may need to rethink the concept of nationalism and, in particular, our conception of the dominance of national identity in the contemporary world. At the very least, this project suggests that more directed analytical work needs to be done on the issue.

Questions could understandably be raised at this point. Can people really change? Can they (re)construct their identities? This enters an arena of grand philosophical questions that call for more attention than this project can give, but the findings here could contribute to a growing literature on the capacity of people to alter their politics and their selves (Ludwig 1997). As Ludwig argues, it is possible to “ write your own story” as opposed to being obliged to live out the lives others have created for you – in this case, abject obedience to the nation state.

The possibility of rewriting one’s place in the polity suggests that what is happening in Europe is part of a process of “ social learning” (Deutsch 1966). Key to his concept of political change, social learning for Deutsch was an evolutionary process which in some instances produces fully-formed societies and communities. Admittedly the bulk of Deutsch’s work was on the emergence of modern nations, but by extension the process could apply to international integration. We see this in his description of the process of community building through social learning, which sounds similar to that outlined at various places in this study for the European Union. One begins with the proposition that both society and community are developed by social learning, and that a community consists of people who have learned to communicate with each other and to understand each other well beyond the mere interchange of goods and services … Experience and complementarity may … continue to reproduce each other, like the proverbial chicken and the egg, in a syndrome of ethnic learning, that is, a historical process of social learning in which individuals, usually over several generations, learn to become a people.


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