I have discussed in general terms the fortunes of languages in contact, and one of the clearest matters to emerge is the place of language within the larger social context. The symbolic attachments to language were mentioned, as was its interrelationship with other cultural aspects of life. What we observe, in a word, is the intertwining of language with group identity and it is to this that I wish to turn now in some greater detail; specifically, we should consider ethnic and national affiliations, and the role of language within them.
At a very simple level, ethnicity can be thought of as a ‘sense of group identity deriving from real or perceived common bonds such as language, race or religion’. But, although true, this definition is very general and invites more questions than it answers. What, for example, are the most important common bonds? Are some more central than others? Are some essential? And why exactly is the phrase ‘real or perceived’ necessary? If we turn to the extensive literature on ethnic identity, attempting to resolve these matters, we find that we have opened Pandora’s box. An examination of sixty-five studies of ethnicity found that fifty-two of them gave no explicit definition of ethnicity, accepting, by default as it were, the sort of general view cited above. 1 In theoretical treatments of the subject, a broad range of opinion emerges, but several themes recur and it is an examination of these that promises to lead to a comprehensive definition of identity.
First, there is the often-expressed equation of ethnic group with minority group, or with a social subgroup. Yet, even the most casual observer can see that all people are members of some ethnic group or other. Ethnos is a Greek word for ‘nation’, where this signifies a common-descent group, but historically it was also associated with outsiders or barbarians. Dr Johnson defined ‘ethnic’ as ‘heathen; pagan; not Jewish; not Christian’. Perhaps a lingering sense of this has contributed to the sometimes pejorative usage of the term ‘ethnic group’. Nowadays, the politics of power often means that