Language, power, and identity are intertwined with each other. The way a person speaks or writes determines that person’s power (social status) in the world. Language also affects the identity of people. TheTempest, by William Shakespeare, “Learning to Read and Write”, by Frederick Douglass, and “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”, by Gloria Anzaldua, supports the fact that language is intertwined with power and identity.
The Tempest illustrates how power and language are related. In all Shakespearean plays, like The Tempest, European nobles use different a style compared to people of lower social status. The language that the nobles use in Shakespearean plays is called verse. Verse is a flowery and poetic type of language, as opposed to the blunt and choppy language of lower class people. In Act 1 Scene 2 Miranda says to Caliban, “I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour…” (1.2.354-355). Caliban then responded, “You taught me language and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” (1.2.364-365). Caliban is a slave, yet he speaks in verse. Caliban can only speak in verse because Miranda and Prospero taught him. They did not teach Caliban to speak lower class language because they do not know how to speak in that language. Since Caliban knows language, which is language that only kings and nobles use, he feels superior towards Prospero and his daughter.
After learning language Caliban also sounds more intelligent and educated, this creates a better image of him in front of others despite having a disfigured form. Speaking in verse also sets him apart from the other lower class people who do not speak in verse, for instance Trinculo. The diction that Trinculo uses is not very complex making, it harder for him to express himself. By learning verse, Caliban “knows how to curse”; he can express himself better. Therefore, learning language increases a person’s power because the person can understand more about the world and other people. The same power and language relationship between upper and lower class people can be seen in Frederick Douglass’s “Learning to Read and Write.” African slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write as seen in the passage by Douglass writing about his mistress: “Nothing seemed to make her angrier than to see me with a newspaper…” (Douglass 101). Douglass, in the passage, wrote about how his mistress felt when she saw him reading.
The colonists did not want the slaves to learn how to read and write because they feared that the slaves might gain hopes of freedom. So, they made a law prohibiting slaves to read and write. By making this law the colonists could ensure that rebellion will not occur. If the law prohibiting the slaves to read and write was not been made, slaves would able to communicate with each other better. If they could communicate better the slaves could eventually spark larger rebellions than the small plantation ones. To further ensure that rebellion would not materialize, the colonists separated the slaves who spoke the same languages. Clearly, people can perceive that power and language are very much intertwined.
Other than power, language is also related to a person’s identity. In the essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Gloria Anzaldúa talks about how the way she spoke became her identity. Anzaldúa spoke Chicano Spanish. Throughout all of Anzaldúa’s childhood, Chicano was considered by Spanish speaking countries and Americans as an illegitimate language (Anzaldúa 24). Chicano is not slang or an illegitimate language; it is actually a unique language that incorporates English words as well as Spanish words. Anzaldúa could not speak Chicano freely; her parents and teachers forced her to speak in English rather than Chicano. Since her parents and teachers forced her to speak in English, they were suppressing her identity as a Chicano. Suppressing a Chicano from speaking Chicano is just like suppressing an American from speaking English. The idea that language is the foundation for identity is also evident in “Learning to Read and Write,” given that slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write their English was considered poor. The slaves’ poor English was associated with their identity. The identity of slaves was considered inferior to normal (white) humans. Slaves were perceived as inferior because they spoke poor English. Frederick Douglass, however, was not perceived as inferior after he learned to read and write. So, language is incorporated with a person’s identity.
Language is related to both power and identity. Language is the greatest power; with great language a person can accomplish many things in life. Language, power, and identity are all intertwined with each other. Power has a great effect on a person’s identity. For example, since Gloria Anzaldúa was a Chicano lived in America she was a minority. People of non-Chicano dissent had greater power. Therefore, they tried to suppress the Chicano language. The pressure that was put onto the Chicano population was so great that most of the people never spoke Chicano again, changing their identity. Therefore, power is gained through language, which in turn can shape a person’s identity. The importance of learning language is simple. People should learn language so that no force in the world can change their identity because their power will increase do to their language. Ultimately, language power and identity are correlated.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology. Ed. Samuel Cohen. Massachusetts: Bedford, 2004. 22-34
Douglass, Frederick. “Learning to Read and Write.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology. Ed. Samuel Cohen. Massachusetts: Boston, 2004. 100-108
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Annotated Shakespeare. Ed. Burton Raffel. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.