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Understanding Cultural and Ethnic Identities

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2942 words Published: 31st Jul 2018

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Language is an important part of being humans. Being able to communicate with each other and not other animals differentiates us from other animals. This unique characteristic of being humans also is a cause of diversity in our cultural and ethnic identity. From birth we are trained to learn a basic language but as we grow older we pick up languages from our environment in our quest to become accepted by the dominant population. At least that is how I see it. To have an in-depth view of this research paper, we have to define what language, cultural and ethnic identities are.

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According to Merriam-Webster, language is defined as a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings and the combination of methods to be understood by a community (2011). On the other hand cultural identity is the influence of one’s culture on the development of identity. Individualist cultures stress the importance of personal achievement and independence. For example, although many Americans, identify with their Irish, West African, Chinese, or Mexican roots (among many others), they still call themselves Americans. Ethnic identity is the extent to which one identifies with a particular ethnic group(s). it refers to one’s sense of belonging to an ethnic group and the part of one’s thinking, perceptions, feelings, and behavior that is due to an ethnic group membership. The next ten pages will see me go through how language marks our cultural and ethnic identity using my own experience as an African.

I was born in Ibadan, Nigeria. Ibadan was the capital of the Oyo Empire and still is the capital of the modern Oyo state. I identity myself first as a Nigerian, and a Yoruba, but that isn’t how it was about some 200 years ago. Before the nineteenth century no one was called a Yoruba. The peoples of southwestern Nigeria, the Benin Republic, and Togo who are today referred to by scholars as “the Yoruba” were, until the late 19th century, organized into a series of some 15 to 20 independent states. (Christopher) These political entities were similar but different. The Oyo Empire oversaw all the political entities and therefore the culture of this people were similar they spoke in a similar language but in different dialect. North-West Yoruba is historically a part of the Ọyọ Empire. In NWY dialects, Proto-Yoruba /gh/ (the velar fricative [É£]) and /gw/ have merged into /w/; the upper vowels /i Ì£/ and /ụ/ were raised and merged with /i/ and /u/, just as their nasal counterparts, resulting in a vowel system with seven oral and three nasal vowels. Ethnographically, traditional government is based on a division of power between civil and war chiefs; lineage and descent are unilineal and agnatic.

South-East Yoruba was probably associated with the expansion of the Benin Empire after c. 1450 AD. In contrast to NWY, lineage and descent are largely multilineal and cognatic, and the division of titles into war and civil is unknown. Linguistically, SEY has retained the /gh/ and /gw/ contrast, while it has lowered the nasal vowels /ịn/ and /ụn/ to /ẹn/ and /ọn/, respectively. SEY has collapsed the second and third person plural pronominal forms; thus, àn án wá can mean either ‘you (pl.) came’ or ‘they came’ in SEY dialects, whereas NWY for example has ẹ wá ‘you (pl.) came’ and wọ́n wá ‘they came’, respectively. The emergence of a plural of respect may have prevented coalescence of the two in NWY dialects.

Central Yoruba forms a transitional area in that the lexicon has much in common with NWY, whereas it shares many ethnographical features with SEY. Its vowel system is the least innovating (most stable) of the three dialect groups, having retained nine oral-vowel contrasts and six or seven nasal vowels, and an extensive vowel harmony system. (Adetugbọ 1973) the term Yoruba is said to be given to Oyo Empire by the Hausas who originally called us “yariba”

But as the Yoruba people changed from one political power to another, their identity became stronger. The Oyo themselves had adopted the designation Yoruba as a mode of self-reference by the early 19th century, a process probably encouraged by the high status associations of Hausa regal culture and Islam. (Christopher) and with the existence of colonialism and World War II the Yoruba ethnic group solidified to become what it is today.

Yoruba give up from what was a group of political entities with different dialect to uniform tribe with a language Yoruba’s call “Yoruba adugbo”. The 15 – 20 dialects which were employed a long time ago became one language. Despite the fact that I come from two royal families of two different independent states with different dialects, I can only speak the common Yoruba language even my parent have had hard times trying to remember the individual dialects.

As a Yoruba we have certain Norms which most of us are accustomed to for example when must prostrate when greeting elders, we must respect elders in every way possible. Also we are also known to be people who are well educated and successful for example, M.K.O. Abiola, Obafemi Awolowo and Wole Soyinka. This specific qualities gives Yoruba’s certain privileges with which being able to speak the language comes to an advantage. While I was still living in Nigeria, I discovered that people who could speak the Yoruba language were immediately considered as Yoruba and would receive any treatment that is due to a Yoruba. Even when I came to the United States, I went for a college interview and when she my saw my last name she just smiled and started speaking Yoruba to an already nervous me and the interview was a success as I felt comfortable in my native language. What I am trying to say is that when she saw my last name, her knowledge of the language helps her to identify me as someone of the same the tribe as herself and further more from my last name she was able to deduce what state I was from and communicate with me in an appropriate way. A similar case happened to me when I went to the beach last summer while walking I heard man speaking it was a man whom I didn’t know from Adam but when he spoke Yoruba I could identify to be a Yoruba man and began to talk like we have known each other for a long time.

Research has pointed to an interesting ethnic paradox in the United States. Despite many indications of weakening ethnic boundaries in the white American population (due to intermarriage, language loss, religious conversion or declining participation), a number of studies have shown a maintenance or increase in ethnic identification among whites

This contradictory dualism is partly due to what Gans terms “symbolic ethnicity,” which is “characterized by a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior” (Joane). Bakalian provides the example of Armenian Americans:

For American-born generations, Armenian identity is a preference and being Armenian is a state of mind….One can say he or she is an Armenian without speaking Armenian, marrying an Armenian, doing business with Armenians, belonging to an Armenian church, joining Armenian voluntary associations, or participating in the events and activities sponsored by such organizations.(Joane )

While ethnicity is commonly viewed as biological in the United States (with its history of an obdurate ethnic boundary based on color), research has shown people’s conception of themselves along ethnic lines, especially their ethnic identity, to be situational and change- able. Barth (1969) first convincingly articulated the notion of ethnicity as mutable, arguing that ethnicity is the product of social ascriptions, a kind of labeling process engaged in by oneself and others. (Joane)

As one language changes the their notion of ethnicity change a s we further learn According to Joane Nagel that with this perspective in mind, one’s ethnic identity is a composite of the view one has of oneself as well as the views held by others about one’s ethnic identity. As the individual (or group) moves through daily life, ethnicity can change according to variations in the situations and audiences encountered. Ethnic identity, then, is the result of a dialectical process involving internal and external opinions and processes, as well as the individual’s self-identification and outsiders’ ethnic designations-i.e., what you think your ethnicity is, versus what they think your ethnicity is. Since ethnicity changes situationally, the individual carries a portfolio of ethnic identities that are more or less salient in various situations and with reference to various audiences.

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As audiences change, the socially-defined array of ethnic choices opens to the individual changes. This produces a “layering” of ethnic identities which combines with the ascriptive character of ethnicity to reveal the negotiated, problematic nature of ethnic identity. Ethnic Constructing Ethnicity 155 boundaries, and thus identities, are constructed by both the individual and group as well as by outside agents and organizations. Examples can be found in patterns of ethnic identification in many U.S. ethnic communities.

For instance, Cornell (1988) and McBeth (1989) discuss various levels of identity available to Native Americans: sub tribal (clan, lineage, traditional), tribal (ethnographic or linguistic, reservation-based, official), regional (Oklahoma, California, Alaska, Plains), supra- tribal or pan-Indian (Native American, Indian, American Indian). Which of these identities a native individual employs in social interaction depends partly on where and with whom the interaction occurs. Thus, an American Indian might be a “mixed-blood” on the reservation, from “Pine Ridge” when speaking to someone from another reservation, a “Sioux” or “Lakota” when responding to the U.S. census, and “Native American” when interacting with non-Indians. Joane Nagel noted a similar layering of Latino or Hispanic ethnic identity, again reflecting both internal and external defining processes. An individual of Cuban ancestry may be a Latino in relation to non-Spanish-speaking ethnic groups, a Cuban-American with reference to other Spanish-speaking groups, a Marielito in relation to other Cubans, and white in relation to African Americans.

The chosen ethnic identity is determined by the individual’s perception of its meaning to different audiences, its salience in different social contexts, and its utility in different settings. For instance, intra- Cuban distinctions of class and immigration cohort may not be widely understood outside of the Cuban community since a Marielito is a “Cuban” or “Hispanic” to most Anglo-Americans. To a Cuban, however, immigration cohorts represent important political “vintages,” distinguishing those whose lives have been shaped by decades of Cuban revolutionary social changes from those whose life experiences have been as exiles in the United States. Others’ lack of appreciation for such ethnic differences tends to make certain ethnic identity choices useless and socially meaningless except in very specific situations. It underlines the importance of external validation of individual or group ethnic boundaries.

An ethnic group’s cultural identity involves a shared sense of the cultural features that help to define and to characterize the group. These group attributes are important not just for their functional value, but also as symbols. For example, for many Puerto Ricans in the United States, the Spanish language is not just a means of communication; it also represents their identification as Latinos and their difference from the majority culture. Even if Spanish reading and writing ability is absent, the desire to conserve some degree of Spanish speaking ability may reflect a desire to maintain distinctiveness from the surrounding society

Take me for example; I didn’t learn my native language until I was about eleven years old. I went to a very expansive school where everything around was English. Therefore, the only my society needed from me at that point in time was English. It was not until I went to live with my grand mom that I started to pick up my native language. My grandma lived in a more or less rural part of Nigeria were most people spoke Yoruba and as began to mingle with other kids I fortuitously began to pick up the language as the need for communication was apparent in other to be part of the community.

At the individual level, cultural identity has to do with the person’s sense of what constitutes membership in an ethnic group to which he or she belongs. Each person will have a particular image of the behaviors and values that characterize the group’s culture. In my case Yoruba’s are known to be able insult people especially people from the Oyo empire they are popularly categorized with the term “agboku dide” meaning someone who can insult the dead to come back to live. While staying with my grandma I was not look at to be a foreigner and precaution was taken when I come to play with other children. When I was in a fight I didn’t get support because I did not belong, making my whole group triumph at insulting me. But as I started to learn the language I began to gain respect amongst my pairs and felt part of the community. People think twice before coming to insult me and the sense of belonging came to me.

The term cultural identity is distinguished here from the related and broader social psychological concept of social identity, as well as from ethnic identity. Tajfel and Turner (1986) define social identity as consisting “of those aspects of an individual’s self-image that derive from the social categories to which he perceives himself as belonging”. Their notion of social categories is quite broad, encompassing any type of group to which people perceive themselves as belonging. Such categories of course include ethnicity, but can range from school sports teams to professional identifications, from social club memberships to gender or race classifications, and from nationality groups to psychological groups (for example, “jocks,” “yuppies,” “nerds”). Social identity incorporates both the person’s knowledge of membership in particular social categories and the value and feelings attached to those memberships. Ethnic identity can be defined as the portion of an individual’s social identity that is associated with membership in an ethnic group (Joane).

Cultural identity, while linked closely to both ethnic and social identity, is neither equivalent to them nor coterminous. While both ethnic and cultural identity help the individual to answer the question, “Who am I?” cultural identity is the component that associates particular cultural features with group membership. Social identity and ethnic identity deal with the symbolic aspects of social categorization – the boundary between the in-group and the out-group – and the associated affect. A particular individual, for example, may base his/her social identity primarily on gender, while his /her younger siblings may focus more sharply on her Polish background. Thus, the former individual’s ethnic identity as a Polish-American would be somewhat less strong than that of the latter individual (Joane).

Using the example Joanne Nagel gave, an ethnic identity is only made possible by our language. As one can only know more of one culture by speaking its language. No wonder when ever scientist want to explore a certain ethnic group they start by first learning the ethnic’s group language. After that, the scientist and people from the ethnic group feel as one and as if they can relate without any barriers.

In conclusion, I would like to attest to the fact that that our language marks our identity. the way one speaks directly refers to where one comes from, for example if one speaks French, the person is from either France or French speaking country but the way the person speaks French is always different and from this one is able to deduce if the person is an Ivorian, Senegalese, a French Canadian or proper French. The same is English we have the American English which differ for instance we have a southern way of speaking and the northern way of speaking. This systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings and the combination of methods to be understood by a community can differentiate us totally like I am always asked if English was my first language because of my accent and no matter how times I tell them that English is my first language, I keep hearing the same question.


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