Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Identification stories

A group of us met to talk about language development strategy the other day and got to the subject of identity, what identifies a person with a certain group, i.e. language, dress, ways of doing things, religion, accent, food and stories. We're from the USA, and can point to the legends of the founding fathers as something shared, or of conflicts, expansion, immigration, travel, exploration, science, drama and American literature as being somewhat shared. Where does one go from there? I'm from eastern Pennsylvania of southern German descent. I'm grateful to my uncle and other relatives for researching the family history. I have family tree charts and am learning the stories, which identify me with a certain people, even though for me the language, Pennsylvania German, is gone. I'm sure that if Pennsylvania German would've been passed on to me, I would've identified more strongly with that group than I do at present.

While living on Epi Island in Vanuatu, we learned some of their stories, such as how Lamen Island arrived in its present location, having floated over from Malakula Island. They say you can see the hole in the reef where it once stood. Knowing the story, especially in the Lamen language, helps Lamen Islanders identify with their group. It's a shared story of their past.

Even in Vanuatu identity is layered. One can be called 'Man Vanuatu' as being a citizen of Vanuatu, or 'Man Epi' as being from the particular island called Epi. Epi has at least 5 languages though, spoken by around 5,000 people. So, 'Man Epi' is not enough to identify oneself in that situation. Someone might speak the Lewo language and then is probably not 'Man Lewo' as you'd expect, but identified by the village they live in. People there know what language is spoken in what village. After that, people are identified by their clans and families.

We had a good discussion on language and identity, and shared stories that mark that group. What stories identify you and your group? It can be a difficult question to answer, but one worth asking.

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