Linguistic Stereotypes

When a Costume Isn’t Just a Costume, and ‘Ya’ll’ Isn’t Just a Contraction

Happy Halloween!
Happy Halloween!

This has always been my favorite time of year. I love watching leaves change, drinking apple cider, sleeping under comforters, etc. And as a kid, I LOVED deciding what costume I would wear. In fact, I’m sure that getting to wear fun costumes was at least part of the reason why I decided to study theater in undergrad.

Sometimes Halloween costumes can be tricky, though. If you’ve read the news lately, I’m sure you’ve come across at least one example of someone choosing to wear a costume that was problematic, because it was racially or culturally insensitive. Most people condemn these choices, and rightly so. These costumes seek to minimize a complex culture into a stereotype for the sake of entertainment.

You might be asking yourself why I’m writing about this on a linguistics blog. And to be honest, I had considered writing about word origins associated with Halloween, or something else more light-hearted. Well, there’s no shortage of fun and spooky articles out there today, and I hope you’ll check them out after you finish reading my post. 🙂

But I’m interested in how language relates to culture, and in addition to cultural stereotypes there are linguistic stereotypes. Yet, sadly, linguistic stereotyping doesn’t always seem to arouse the same kind of ire as cultural stereotyping.

Here’s an example: dialects. Whenever we speak, we provide information about ourselves, both intentional and unintentional. Our audience (or conversation partner) uses this information, along with their own knowledge and experiences, to make judgments about us. Sometimes these judgments are based on stereotypes, and one common stereotype deals with dialects.

Linguists know that dialects are not inherently good or bad. It’s more a matter of which style of pronunciation is currently preferred, and by whom.  Whether or not a dialect is preferred often has to do with the connotations associated with it. And just to make things more complicated, the connotations need to match the preferences of the audience.

What do I mean by that?

Certain accents can be perceived as sounding “educated” or they can sound “hoighty-toighty”

Others can be perceived as “slow” or “real and down-to-earth”

What’s important to understand is that it’s the receiver’s pre-conceptions that lead them to assign a positive or a negative value.

I’ve found that by simply being aware of this in myself, I’ve been able to recognize when my judgments are based on assumptions and pre-conceptions. I try to remember that this is unfair, and that I wouldn’t want someone to do the same to me. And then I try to simply focus on the person in front of me and keep an open mind.

2 thoughts on “When a Costume Isn’t Just a Costume, and ‘Ya’ll’ Isn’t Just a Contraction

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