The best books on language and identity and why it matters

Who am I?

I am a professor of English Linguistics interested in all aspects of language, identity, society, and power. I grew up and live in Southern Italy, in the Naples area, except for extended summertime family visits to San Diego, Southern California. I alternate my reading and writing between books on language and identity (how we self-promote ourselves to the public through personal style and narratives, molding our public image in a way we believe most advantageous to us) and texts on language and society (how we as individuals do things with words and gather information about other people from the way they communicate) and how these aspects intersect with power issues.


I wrote...

Celebrity Accents and Public Identity Construction: Analyzing Geordie Stylizations

By Emilia Di Martino,

Book cover of Celebrity Accents and Public Identity Construction: Analyzing Geordie Stylizations

What is my book about?

How does a celebrity construct a positive self-image and even succeed in reversing attempts at stigmatization and snowballing? How can this ability to manage individual image feed, in turn, into a process of mutual favorable associations with a dialect, endowing popular forms of speech with cool status? 

I illustrate the press’s attempts to brand Britain’s beloved singer Cheryl as a specific stereotype of working-class youth─the chav, side by side with the singer’s efforts to resist this label, re-orienting and steering her working-class belonging into a ‘milder’ form of working-classness, where she would inhabit a poor but certainly not deprived background. Cheryl didn't simply claim authentic membership of Geordie culture; she contributed to reinscribing the category, ‘laminating’ the Geordie dialect with a layer of coolness and making it ‘marketable’.

The books I picked & why

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Style: Language Variation and Identity

By Nikolas Coupland,

Book cover of Style: Language Variation and Identity

Why this book?

This remarkably clear and engaging read opened my eyes to the identity dimension of style. Using plenty of examples, it shows how we pick and mix from the many alternative ways we can say something to present and position ourselves in society in a specific way. 

Nikolas Coupland, currently Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University, thoroughly reviews previous sociolinguistic studies on style, from traditional to modern, steering research towards a more sophisticated and wide-ranging understanding of the ways specific contexts, local interactions, personal access to the resources of language and individual aesthetic choices make meaning in the presentation of the self.

Style: Language Variation and Identity

By Nikolas Coupland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Style as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Style refers to ways of speaking - how speakers use the resource of language variation to make meaning in social encounters. This 2007 book develops a coherent theoretical approach to style in sociolinguistics, illustrated with copious examples. It explains how speakers project different social identities and create different social relationships through their style choices, and how speech-style and social context inter-relate. Style therefore refers to the wide range of strategic actions and performances that speakers engage in, to construct themselves and their social lives. Coupland draws on and integrates a wide variety of contemporary sociolinguistic research as well as his…


Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't

By George Lakoff,

Book cover of Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't

Why this book?

Identity is currently the dominant frame in public discourse, with individuals of a specific ethnicity, religion, gender, social background, environmental opinion or other identifying factors developing shared agendas, which are often expressed through a recognizable style. In this book (revisited in 2002 with the subtitle Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think to relate the book’s content to the 2000 US presidential election─also used for the book’s third edition, issued in 2016), George Lakoff applies cognitive linguistics to the study of contemporary American politics, illustrating the different conceptual models of morality conservatives (strict father model) and liberals (nurturant parent model) hold. These models revolve around contrasting views of the relationship between the State and citizens, springing from an understanding of the nation and its governance through the metaphor of the family

Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't

By George Lakoff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Moral Politics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Taking a look at current thought about political and moral ideas, this book analyzes political discussion to find that the family - especially the ideal family - is the most powerful metaphor in politics. Revealing how family-based moral values determine views on such diverse issues as crime, gun control, taxation, social programmes, and the environment, George Lakoff looks at how conservatives and liberals link morality to politics through the concept of family and how these ideals diverge. Arguing that conservatives have exploited the connection between morality, the family, and politics, while liberals have failed to recognize it, Lakoff explains why…


Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender

By Anna Livia,

Book cover of Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender

Why this book?

In 1971, in response to a protest by women students at the Harvard Divinity School against the masculine universal, the chair of Harvard’s linguistics department, Calvert Watkins, wrote a letter to Crimson, cosigned by other colleagues. Explaining the concept of ‘markedness,’ he contended there was “really no cause for anxiety or pronoun-envy on the part of those seeking such changes.” Anna Livia’s book─originally her PhD thesis at Berkeley, uses the controversial phrase as the departure point for an enlightening analysis of a wide range of English and French texts problematizing the traditional linguistic gender system. The study reveals that rather than stemming from undue envy, gendered language is justifiably at the core of feminist battles. How can we express ourselves fully if our identities are not adequately represented in discourse?

Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender

By Anna Livia,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pronoun Envy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this interdisciplinary book, Livia examines a broad corpus of written texts in English and French, concentrating on those texts which problematize the traditional functioning of the linguistic gender system. They range from novels and prose poems to film scripts and personal testimonies, and in time from the nineteenth century to the present. Her goal is to show that rather than being a case of misguided envy, battles over gendered language are central to feminist
concerns. This fresh and exciting scholarship will appeal to linguists and scholars in literary and gender studies.


Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

By Gloria Anzaldúa,

Book cover of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Why this book?

Gloria Anzaldúa was a Chicana cultural theorist, an activist, and a queer feminist scholar, and this book─which well mirrors this complexity, can be approached from many possible perspectives. Lying between essay writing, poetry, and semi-autobiographical memoir, it discloses how the author’s identity was shaped by a daily confrontation between Mexican and Indian traditions and the Anglo-American present: cultures that edge each other on the borderlands of the Rio Grande.

While this may not appear to be a book on language at first glance, Borderlands/La Frontera unveils language’s central role in the writer’s personal identity-shaping (“Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity─I am my language”), also tangibly in its mixture of English and Spanish. Moreover, moving as it does over broad territory, the book has contributed to challenging how laypeople, not just scholars or intellectuals, think about identity.

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza

By Gloria Anzaldúa,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Borderlands/La Frontera as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country--a border culture."--Gloria Anzaldúa

Rooted in Gloria Anzaldúa's experience as a Chicana, a lesbian, an activist, and a writer, the essays and poems in BORDERLANDS/LA FRONTERA: THE NEW MESTIZA profoundly challenged, and continue to challenge, how we think about identity. BORDERLANDS/LA FRONTERA remaps our understanding of what a "border" is, presenting it not as a simple divide between here and there, us and them, but…


White Teeth

By Zadie Smith,

Book cover of White Teeth

Why this book?

This is a polyphonic narration of London, witnessing contemporary urban everyday language and identity practices. Zadie Smith completed her (debut) novel in her final year at Cambridge, after an auction for the rights was won by Hamish Hamilton (currently part of Penguin Random House), based on a partial manuscript.

Recent trends in language studies have produced a human turn in research to make sense of present—intricate, transnationally connected and dynamic—complexity, problematizing the countability and representability of cultures, languages, and identities as single entities. This book offers a glimpse of the type of languaging which naturally emerges in spaces inhabited by polyglots and other individuals drawing from several linguistic repertoires in urban landscapes. Each character stands out for their idyosincractic speech, with little Standard English being used and a number of different varieties appearing alongside it.

White Teeth

By Zadie Smith,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked White Teeth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most talked about fictional debuts of recent years, "White Teeth" is a funny, generous, big-hearted novel, adored by critics and readers alike. Dealing - among many other things - with friendship, love, war, three cultures and three families over three generations, one brown mouse, and the tricky way the past has of coming back and biting you on the ankle, it is a life-affirming, riotous must-read of a book.


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