Linguistic Stereotypes, Recommended Reading

The Way You Sound Can Be Used Against You

I’ve moved around a lot since leaving home for college, and in the course of innumerable introductions and casual chats inevitably someone will ask me where I’m from. When I tell people I grew up in Western New York, the response is usually one of the following:

From people who don’t know where that is, I’ll be asked,

“Is that close to New York City?”

(No, it’s not. It’s as far as you can be from NYC and still be in NY. It’s practically Canada)

From people who DO know where that is, I’ll hear,

“But you don’t have a Buffalo accent.”

(By which they mean my speech doesn’t have the characteristics of the Inland North accent that is broadly found in the Great Lakes region.)

I know I’ve written about accents before (here and here), but they’re a rather rich source of interesting stories. Case in point, I found two great articles this week about accents—the first is an argument for how all accents are valid and beautiful, and the second involves the much more serious topic of using language-based judgments to determine a person’s right to asylum.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve lived in several places, including two major cities, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and I have friends that live in or near most of the major cities along the east coast. So when I saw the bracket at the beginning of the article  responding to Gawker’s “America’s Ugliest Accent” tournament, I was dismayed to see not only Chicago, but NY, Boston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New Orleans and LA (along with 9 others) listed as having ugly accents.

Luckily this blog post (which was picked up by, which is where I found the link) against this tournament, “What’s Wrong with Gawker’s Tournament,” written by Josef Fruehwald—a University of Edinburgh lecturer with a PhD in Sociolinguistics—presented a lovely case for why this tournament is ridiculous. Fruehwald points out that accents are routinely used as a means of discrimination, or at least as the basis of gross categorizations that equate speaking style with demographics like education, income, and race. Aside from making people feel bad about their speaking style, the Gawker bracket is (perhaps inadvertently?) promoting linguistic stereotypes.

And the idea of stereotypes, or at least preconceived ideas of how people should sound, comes into play in the second article I found, “Language as a Passport,” which mentions how, in cases where paper documentation isn’t available, a person’s language can be used in determining whether they should be granted asylum in another country.

The long-held assumption that a person’s nationality can be determined by their speech (the article sites the biblical example that gave rise to the word shibboleth) meets with some strong contradictory evidence from instances of children being raised in a different speech environment from their “native” one. The article does mention that the Language Analysis for the Determination of Origin process can’t definitively provide nationality, but can only, “indicate the predominant country or region of socialization of an asylum seeker.” When asylum seekers find themselves faced with hurdles like this, it’s important to remember that language and speech are not fixed features, but can change based on a variety of factors at many points throughout someone’s life.

The way we speak is just one part of our identity—it can tie us together or it can separate us into groups based on things like geography or ancestry. It’s one thing to use it as conversation starter around a table in a college dining hall, and another to use it as the basis for prejudice.


**Update: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has written an article about the Gawker tournament, with comments from linguist Dr. Barbara Johnstone. You can check it out here. It also mentions that Dr. Josef Fruewald’s response to the tournament was originally a blog post that was picked up by, so I’ve made some minor adjustments in the post to reflect this.**

Language in the News, Language on TV, Linguistic Stereotypes

Power of the Language of Power (Part 1)

Two articles crossed my desk this week that I thought were worth writing about, and they both have the same idea at their heart: language and how it relates to power. The first, about the Ukraine, I’ll discuss today, and the second, about women directors specifically and gender in the arts more broadly, I’ll write about next week.

I’ve found a few articles about the uprisings/unrest in the Ukraine that mention the importance of the language and cultural differences between Western, European-leaning-and-Ukrainian-speaking Ukraine, and Eastern, Russian-leaning-and-speaking Ukraine. I’ve chosen to share this one from the International Business Times, primarily for the last few paragraphs. They explain that while the languages are “closely related Slavic tongues…they are also distinct languages with separate ethnic and national identities” and how the language you speak can determine whether you’re viewed as a second-class citizen.

Knowing the linguistic and cultural differences can help explain why certain Ukranian citizens prefer to think of themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian, particularly those in Sevastopol with its Russian Naval presence. And why they view intervention by Russian military forces as welcome, rather than as an invasion.

Linguistics and how it relates to the concept of national identity has been studied by several sociolinguists, including work focusing on the many countries formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. When politics or economics draw boundary lines, they don’t always take the more personally and socially relevant concepts like language and culture into consideration. And as we’re seeing in the Ukraine, the resulting clashes will be heard around the world.

Language and Theatre, Language on TV, Linguistic Stereotypes

Accents (Take Two)!

This past week, it seemed like accents were following me everywhere. While visiting family in Pittsburg this weekend, we got into a discussion about Pittsburghese, which lead to someone finding this talk by Barbara Johnstone at Carnegie Mellon University. We also joked about the part in Waiting for Guffman when the main character, Corky St. Clair, talks about how he is practicing for an upcoming audition for My Fair Lady by dropping his H’s (‘ello. ‘ow are ‘ou). Even a rerun of The Big Bang Theory got into the act, with Raj practicing his “American” accent.

Having had to perform several accents during my career onstage, I’m familiar with how and why accents are often used in movies, TV, and theater: accents are a shortcut—a way for people to make assumptions about a character, or to make a character sound more “believable.” So, if someone “sounds British” to an American audience, we make certain assumptions about where that character is from. Later, if we find out the character is from Miami, we start trying to figure out why he sounds that way. Suddenly that bit of information becomes an even more important piece of the puzzle, because why would the director want him to sound that way if it wasn’t important to our understanding of the story?

And what if the accent just doesn’t sound right somehow? My dad was watching a commercial about New York City’s Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts. He turned to me and said, “That guy doesn’t sound like he’s from Brooklyn. Doesn’t he sound more like he’s from Boston?” I told him I’d have to listen more closely next time, but it got me thinking about how accents also help us to decide if someone is who they claim to be.

A few weeks ago, on Halloween, I wrote about dialects, and how people use them to make assumptions about people. Today, I want to elaborate a bit about what kind of assumptions can be made (in addition to the one above, about whether or not people really are who they claim to be, or grew up where they said they did).

When we say someone has an accent, what we mean is that they pronounce certain words differently than we do. Sometimes the accent sounds very pronounced and distinct, sometimes they are far more subtle. Either way, here is a bit of truth for you:

Everyone speaks with an accent. There is no linguistically “correct” way of speaking any given language, against which all other accents are compared. 

Accents are another way of categorizing people—of putting people in the “us” box or the “them” box. If people sound like us, then the likelihood that we share other things increases. Things like similar cultural backgrounds or traditions, histories, geographical understandings, morals and ethics, even certain vocabulary words (pop vs. soda, anyone?). If people sound heavily accented to us, then it is more likely that they are different from us in all the ways listed above. And that’s where assumptions and stereotypes come in.

If we assume new people are like us based on how they talk, then it seems like we give them the benefit of the doubt. Because we know people like them already—we know we have some similarities, and so we think the differences are relatively minor in comparison.

On the other hand, if people sound differently, and therefore we assume they come from a different cultural background, then what knowledge do we rely on to understand where they’re coming from? We draw on previous interactions with someone we decide was like them or stereotypes that we’ve heard. For example, “if so-and-so was a jerk, and they sounded like this new person, then this new person is also a jerk, because it must be cultural” (doesn’t that sound awful?).

Ultimately, the more diversity we can cultivate in our interactions, the less likely we are to resort to assumptions.

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.