I thought it would be timely to speak about language related bigotry on the same day that a bigoted demagogue has been sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
“Linguistic discrimination”, also known as “linguicism”, is one of the darkest corners of sociolinguistics, but also one of the most fascinating. Though it’s a complex and highly controversial topic, in simple terms, linguicism is defined as:
The unfair treatment of an individual based on their native language, dialect, accent, vocabulary, word choice, syntax, etc.
Sadly, this form of discrimination can be found in every corner of the globe. As I’ve traveled the world—and even different pockets of my home country—I have witnessed countless cases of people being treated better or worse based on their native tongue or regional dialect.
Some of us are lucky. I won the linguistic lottery simply by being born to parents who speak the current default lingua franca of world commerce (English) and growing up in a region of the United States (California and Washington State) that happens to speak the same dialect of English (“General American” or “Standard American”) used on the nightly news.
And yes, my fellow West-Coasters, you do speak a “dialect” of English and you do have an “accent”. Yours just happens to be considered “standard”. Count yourself lucky that you never had to learn to speak in a special way for job interviews and that people don’t automatically assume you’re uneducated based solely on your accent. Not so for folks who happened to be born and raised in regions with supposed “non-standard” dialects. Lots of young people, especially those who grew up in the south, the Bronx, Boston, or communities speaking African American Vernacular English (AAVE), find that they have to learn to speak differently if they want to gain employment and be perceived as educated professionals.
But why must this be so? Contrary to what many crotchety grammar mavens claim, such dialects are not “improper” forms of English; they are full-fledged language systems with a consistent structure, rich vocabularies, and even the ability to express grammatical subtleties lacking in General American. For example, in AAVE, there is a useful grammar structure for indicating habitual actions lacking in most other dialects of English.
No, “nonstandard” does not mean “substandard”. And what is considered “standard” in a given place and time is based on socioeconomics and historical chance, not any innate supremacy of a given dialect’s phonology, syntax, or lexicon. As Max Weinreich famously said, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”
Though it runs on the same fuel as racism (arrogance and ignorance), linguicism is not nearly as taboo. But it definitely should be. Making judgements about someone’s character, intelligence, or trustworthiness based on the specific vibrations of their vocal chords is just as bad as similar judgements based on their skin pigment.
Interestingly, racism and linguicism likely share the same evolutionary foundation. When we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, it was critical to quickly ascertain who was friend and who was foe, and the quickest way to do that was physical characteristics and speech patterns. While I believe humans are best off adhering to some of our evolutionary programming (e.g. eating certain types of foods), this is one area where it’s time for all of us to evolve past our ancestors.
So next time you hear an accent and find yourself making a snap judgement, try to be conscious of your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness in the moment is the only way to ever change behavior. You can’t fight the darkness; you can only shine light upon it.