The Renaissance of Kernewek 1900-2017 Part V

Social Identity Theory, Sonic Geographies and Sonic Exclusion:

“Individuals have a need for positive social identification or self-conception…groups will produce flattering stereotypes of themselves and demeaning stereotypes of others” (Tajfel: 1981: p 256).

Conceived by Henri Tajfel in 1979, Social Identity Theory considers how people make sense of who they are through the groups which they become members of. An essential part of this sense of belonging are the feelings of pride and high self-esteem that are produced. For Turner (1996), it was best described as a:-

“…conceptial tripod. One leg was the psychological sequence of restoring positive      distinctiveness to group memberships. Another leg was complex set of social and      psychological processes that shifted behaviour from interpersonal to intergroup       levels, and the third crucial leg of the tripod was the social contextualisation of the psychological dynamic”  (1996: p 17).

Such membership of a group is both “a psychological process and a social product” (Turner & Giles: 1981: p 27) which relies on members becoming actively involved in activities together to reach some form of defined goal. This is an area which has parallels with Anderson’s (2006) notion of an ‘Imagined Community’ and Said’s (1978) theory of an ‘Interpretive Community’, where “nations don’t just have to be imagined, but also have to create their own histories, or interpretations of themselves” (adapted by Billig: 2010: p 70) plays an equally important role. This creation of history, reminiscent of Hobsbawm and Ranger’s (2000) ‘Invention of Tradition’ (see Section 4.1), also sets out to serve as material to reinforce a sense of ‘us and them’. This ‘invented history’ with tales of glorious tussles against those outside of the group, reinforced with recreated languages and other perceived distinctive cultural icons, creates virtual countries and prejudices, which can occasionally lead to conflict on a range of scales ranging from deliberate use of a different language to ensure a ‘pure’ membership of the group, to more overt forms of racism.

Yet how do people become members of such groups, and what is the membership process like? Hogg and Abrams (1988) identify three stages – firstly a self categorisation of membership, secondly comes the process of learning the norms of the identity, and finally, assigning these norms to themselves (p 324 and p 327). For those seeking to be members of a specific Cornish Identity group, a key component is an ability to speak Kernewek. Whilst one may expect that this could explain the increasing desire to learn the language because of an emotional tie to the territory of Cornwall, later sections of this research suggest that it is nowhere near as straightforward as that. No longer is it possible to say that people will learn Cornish simply because that person was born and bred to be Cornish or have Cornish ancestry. Instead, my research suggests that some in-migrants have begun to learn the language because they want to become a potential member of this particular social group as a consequence, and gain some of the status or cultural capital (see later sections for detailed discussion) that being a member affords them.

Tajfel’s (1981) observation that “individuals have a need for positive social identity or self-conception” (p 256) could explain why people who have no birth or ancestral links wish to learn Kernewek or become involved in indigenous cultural groups and activities. Such people would see it as an opportunity to fit in with their new community, or at least be seen to fit in. Indeed, Weale (2017) has highlighted how the government are encouraging people to learn “indigenous (Celtic) languages…as a means of improving social cohesion in local communities” (Guardian: 2017). Here, a clear distinction needs to be drawn as to whether or not promoting social cohesion by language learning would allow eventual membership of the groups who speak that language. Supporters of Tajfel, such as Ng (1996) believe that a social group using language as a signal of membership is wholly positive in “reflect(ing), creat(ing) and depoliticis(ing) power” (p 193). This is where Social Identify Theory runs in to problems. It does not adequately explain the social cohesion phenomena, or indeed a situation where in-comers or second home owners have admitted learning Kernewek simply as a status symbol to show off to friends from the Home Counties the quaintness of their new area. These would be examples of Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory:-

“…neglect(ing) the question of how people retain psychological continuity when making    transitions from behaving as a member of group x to behaving as a member of group y” (p 144).

Hutnik (1991) in turn, would see as an example of “self-categorizations which act as ‘switches’ that turn on or off aspects of social identity” (p 164). Using language learning or indigenous culture to reinforce negative stereotypes of an area, as such in-comers could be accused of doing, highlights Hutnik’s ‘switch’ mentality perfectly. Here, and in a far from straightforward situation, this group of people’s dominant group membership would be to the pursuits of their former town in the Home Counties, yet they are able to flick a switch to join a different social group for reasons that they perceive would enhance their membership of their original social group. It would be a fruitful future piece of research to determine what particular group membership these people would self-categorise themselves of being members of (Hogg: 1996: p 68). Additionally, more research would also appear to be required into the consequences of this situation on Gumperz & Cock-Gumperz’s (1982) assertion that “social identity and ethnicity are in large part established and maintained through language” (p 7). If a language is being learned but not used to communicate in, and people are moving into an area and treating the learning of the indigenous language as a way of enhancing their social standing in another part of England, what does this say about the authenticity of Kernewek?

Linked to this point are the theories of Sonic Geography and Sonic Exclusion. Kanngieser (2012) has noted how “Geography has had a notable history of bringing together sound, space and politics” (p 338). Studies in this area often focus on natures of soundscapes within a specific region, allowing for vital data to be gathered about language use and perceptions. There are two specific examples which could have parallels with the present situation of language choices in Cornwall. Bucher & Novokova (2015) carried out a study in each of Slovakia’s provinces to examine whether the populations considered themselves to be European, Slovak or of their region. Rural people were more inclined (60.4%) to self-identify with their particular region strongest (p 98). Critically those people who self-identified as being from urban areas believed themselves to be Slovak (35%) more than of their region or European (p 98-99). From these figures, it could be ventured that people from urban areas would be far less likely to appreciate the specific rural nuances of life in an area such as Cornwall. Therefore a similar piece of research taking place in Cornwall among in-comers would provide an insight into a conflict between learning to speak Kernewek and self-identifying as English.

The second piece of research was undertaken by Boland (2010), examining use of Scouse within the city of Liverpool and Greater Merseyside, in a work which examined what it meant to be authentically Scouse, and how the different component parts of this region viewed each other. A vitally important parallel between Boland’s research and my own is the fact that, like Cornwall, “During the 1970s and 1980s, Merseysiders became increasingly alienated from the rest of country. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome developed…” (Carragher cited in Boland: 2010: p 5). In Boland’s research, central questions and conflicts arose about people who were deemed to be “Plastic Scousers from the Wirral and to a lesser extent Knowsley” (ibid: p 6), and he went on to examine what it meant that some people perceived themselves to be members of a group that others did not think them sufficiently ‘qualified’ to join – creating a state of Sonic Exclusion. Allied to this are debates around whether or not you have to live within a territory for a certain period of time to be able to become an accepted member of a group and consequently if there can be different types of group membership and what the significances of this are. Although my study does not focus on accent or dialect, but rather an ability to speak Kernewek, it highlights views about which (if any) people are more socially authentic speakers of the language, and thus see themselves as being placed further up a potential hierarchy of group membership. Means by which people may consider themselves worthy of a place near the top of the hierarchy could be accurate pronunciation of place names (Kearns & Berg: 2002), an area which my own research identified as “an easy way to find out if you’re Cornish or not” (H: Red: 11 February 2017).

An important facet of Sonic Geography and Sonic Exclusion involves examining the spaces in which the languages are spoken. A 2013 study by Brickell noted how “Geographers have a more reticent relationship to the deployment of communicative resources” (p 207) and the influence of what Livingstone termed “spaces of speech” (ibid). By examining not just the social and geographical background of people who speak the indigenous Cornish language, but where they speak it, further important data can be gathered about the realistic viability of Kernewek. Long term, the present renaissance in the language needs to be continued by discovering how much it is spoken within everyday family conversations in a domestic situation, or if it remains a language only used on specially organised social occasions. This has parallels with a piece of research by Brickell examining the usage of native proverbs in everyday conversations in Vietnamese homes and how this has aided the reinforcement of “identity through a particular accent or the way in which…(words) are pronounced” (ibid p 208). Ultimately, if Kernewek speakers only speak the language at special gatherings, it becomes almost a forced use of the tongue in a false situation.

NEXT WEEK: Introduction to Empirical Data and Use of Kernewek as a Reaction to In-Migration, Second Home Ownership and Tourism.


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