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Ethnolect is a variety of a language spoken by a certain ethnic/cultural subgroup and serves primarily as a language, but can also be a distinguishing mark of social identity, both within the group and by outsiders. The term combines the concepts of an ethnic group and dialect.
Ethnicity and Dialect If the term "ethnolect" embodies a confluence of issues relating to ethnic groups and dialect it appears as a crossroads where linguistics intersects with ethnicity. Joshua Fishman in The Handbook of Sociolinguistics (1997) argues that "ethnicity" signifies the "identificational dimension of culture" and emphasizes that "the perspectival quality of ethnicity means that its specification or attribution is fundamentally subjective, variable and very possibly non-consensual" (329). This seems somewhat fluid and amorphous a concept but in reality Fishman frames his discussion in terms of modernity and the process of creating a national or Standard language. He argues that "modernization itself tends to render the language and ethnicity link more salient in consciousness" (330) and further:
The transformation from an ethnic group to a nationality corresponds to (without being solely responsible for) this transformation of a quiescent feature of daily life into a mobilizing dimension for social action, a dimension which combines reason with commitment that is above or beyond reason, in the pursuit of solutions to the problems of that community that is defined by a particular language and ethnic link. (330)
Ethnicity, therefore, has the potential to dramatically influence linguistic variation in ways that reflect a social dimension of language usage. The way in which ethnic groups interact with one another and respond to modern situations shapes their distinct usage of language, giving rise to a regional dialects defined by unique phonological, syntactic and lexical variation. Modernity, in Fishman's opinion, has the capacity, however, to dramatically increase the importance of a language as it becomes a social marker for a particular ethnic group. Essentially, "dialect", or "vernacular", as being the second element in the term "ethnolect", represents a conflict between the social factors involved in language standardization and the dialect speech community's response to these factors. Ethnolect, therefore, embodies much of the tenuous issues that are involved in ethnicity, i.e., the modern pursuit of Nationalism, and language, i.e. the linguistic variation involved in the proliferation of regional dialects.
The term was first used to describe the monolingual English of descendants of European immigrants in Buffalo, New York (Carlock, E. and Wölck, W. 'A method for isolating diagnostic linguistic variables: The Buffalo ethnolects experiment' in D. Sankoff and H. Cedergren, ed.: Variation Omnibus. Edmonton 1981:17-24).
Because there are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, some scholars understand the term ethnolect as language or dialect.