Speak for yourself: The problem of linguistic discrimination

I have a friend who says “he seem” instead of “he seems” and sometimes doesn’t use an –ed ending for past tense verbs.

As a proud bookworm and English major, I used to judge this kind of ‘bad’ grammar. I was convinced people who talked that way were more careless with their speech than I was.

Last quarter I took Linguistics 400 and learned that the little things in others’ speech I whined about are legitimate, rule-governed parts of different dialects. People from the Western part of the country, myself included, have a dialect, too. For example, we use “like” in a way many people don’t: to mark a repetition of another person’s words, as in, “I’m like, ‘I told you not to say that!’” 

The difference is that I don’t have a majority of people in the country telling me I speak wrong. Research illustrates that Americans tend to think Southerners and New Yorkers speak the most ‘incorrect’ American English. Another frowned-upon dialect of American English is African-American English (AAE); it is often termed ‘slang’ when it is actually a separate dialect with its own structure and rules.

In reality, Southern and New York dialects, and AAE, are no better or worse than the Western dialect I speak. Bold letters on one page of my Linguistics textbook declare, “Linguistically speaking, no one dialect or language is better, more correct, more systematic, or more logical than any other.”

But everywhere I go, especially on a college campus, I either infer or am directly told there is a ‘right’ way to speak. Teachers correct small grammatical mistakes that don’t change the meaning of the writing, friends use exaggerated multiple negatives as a ‘joke’ to sound foolish or dumb, classmates shoot accusatory looks at others who have a thick accent or speak in a way that seems different.

Someone who judges the speech of others based on their dialect is the person exhibiting ignorance, not the other way around. People are generally aware of racism, sexism, and other –isms. Yet linguistic discrimination, linguisticism, if you will, perpetuates racism, sexism, and pretty much every other –ism out there — and isn’t as recognized as other forms of discrimination.

Universities like the UW could help combat linguistic discrimination by making people more aware it exists. Encouraging students to take linguistics classes would be one way. The English department currently “strongly recommends,” but does not require, undergraduate majors to take a linguistics-related course. While this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t acknowledge how prevalent linguistic discrimination is, particularly in communities where written work is the primary focus of study and correcting others’ grammar is a way of life.

Correcting linguistic discrimination should be a priority, not an option. Requiring a student to take a linguistics course doesn’t guarantee they will think about dialects in a more open-minded way — but it makes that outcome more of a possibility than if the student doesn’t take a linguistics course at all. Individual teachers of many subjects could also incorporate more linguistics-based teachings into their own instruction.

Accepting all dialects as equal makes language more fascinating. Without variation among speakers, we wouldn’t have the thousands of distinct languages that currently exist. Linguistic variety is a testament to the ability of the human brain to change and continuously remake its world — something not to be discriminated against, but celebrated.


Reach Science Editor McKenna Princing at opinion@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @McKennaPrincing

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