Linguistics Prejudice

By Aaron Rasin

Despite the United States being such a wonderfully diverse country, there is often discrimination found against marginalized groups based on skin color, class, gender, sexuality, and even the way one speaks. People who speak with accents are sometimes told to go back to where they come from by racist and bigoted members of the US. Even US citizens who speak a dialect of American English such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are discriminated against for not speaking Standard English. We at the Linguistics Justice League, however, believe that any way of speaking is good and correct.

In order to dive into this issue, it’s helpful to use the latest terminology. Recently, a linguist by the name of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas coined the term “linguicism” to describe the discrimination of one’s language, accent, or dialect. Even though any form of discrimination is inherently bad, this specific form of it, when used against speakers of AAVE, is also completely unfounded.

In certain cases, AAVE might appear to a speaker of Standard English as incorrect or simplified, but in reality that is almost never the case. One example of this is the two pronunciations “ask” and “aks”. The former is what speakers of Standard English deem “correct” and the latter is how speakers of AAVE often pronounce the word. Although certain racist individuals have been found insulting Black Americans for using “aks”, there is no way to actually prove that it’s incorrect. Of course, all language is correct on its own, but this example is deeper than that. The spelling and pronunciation “aks” has been found in historical records to be the more popular version long ago in places like Southern England and the Midlands. “Aks” (or “axe”) can even be found in the royally approved first English Bible (the Coverdale Bible) in sentences such as “Axe and it shall be given you”. This makes it clear that no pronunciation is incorrect, just different from each other.

Another example of AAVE being deceptively complex is in the use of the verb “to be”. While speakers of this vernacular might be told that their lack of conjugation is a simplification of English, their use this verb actually involves a distinction found in other languages like Spanish, but not in Standard English. This distinction is known as stage level vs individual predicates. A language like Spanish makes this distinction using two separate verbs “ser”and “estar”, while AAVE makes this distinction based on if they use the verb “be” at all. Temporary traits of a person are expressed by using the unconjugated form of the verb, as in “she be outside” (where Spanish uses the verb estar to say “ella está afuera”.) Conversely, in order to represent a more permanent trait of a person such as intelligence or beauty, one can say “she smart” (in Spanish “ella es inteligente”.) Standard English lacks this distinction altogether, so its especially unfair for people to assert that AAVE is a simplification of other English variations.

In conclusion, any form of discrimination based on the way people speak (“linguicism”) is unjust on its own, however it’s worth noting that much of this discrimination simply comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding.