Linguistic prejudice: time to check our unconscious biases

By Erin CarrieFour yellow balls with faces drawn in black ink: one sad, one happy, one angry and one uneasy

An introduction to linguistic prejudice

We all have preferences when it comes to language – things we like and dislike. There are accents that we find friendly, catchy words that we pick up, and grammatical forms that we consider to be correct. But that means that there are also accents that we find ugly and unattractive, words that we think are silly or offensive, and grammatical forms that we – often quite adamantly – think are just plain wrong.

This is perfectly normal human behaviour. We have a natural tendency to organise our realities in this way, sorting things according to dualities such as good vs bad, right vs wrong, etc. But it does beg the following questions… What are these evaluations of language actually based on? Who decides what is good and bad, or even right and wrong, when it comes to language? And at what point do these preferences become prejudices?

Sociolinguists like myself would argue that there is nothing inherently good, bad or – dare I say – ugly about any aspect of language. These are social meanings that we have attached to language through convention. And it’s perhaps no surprise that the language that we consider to be correct tends to be the language of the elites within our societies.

Within the vastly variable and changing landscape of the English language, there is a tendency to think that dictionaries, grammars, style guides, etc, based on the linguistic norms of the South East of England have the greatest authority and prestige. More often than not, these norms become the standards that editors and proofreaders live and work by, whether explicitly or implicitly.

But what happens when the work being edited or proofread is written by someone using features of regional or second-language varieties of English? Should their writing conform to the aforementioned norms? At what cost? Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the extent to which the profession privileges some voices over others and, in doing so, turns these preferences into linguistic prejudice.

The roles of editors and proofreaders

When editing and proofreading, there is inevitably a need to tread the line between (1) suggesting changes that will help the author communicate their message more effectively and (2) ensuring that the style and voice of the author is retained. Editors and proofreaders spend their time working with language and, though they may refer to style guides and implement language ‘rules’ consistently, they are also aware of the fact that language rules are abstract, ambiguous and, quite often, not applicable – there are always exceptions. This makes their roles more difficult to define – they have to use their own judgement and experience when reshaping the author’s message and mediating the relationship between writer and reader.

Every editor and proofreader should reflect on their role and consider the extent to which they are applying rules or asserting preferences, and enforcing so-called ‘standards’ or facilitating diverse voices in communicating their own messages in their own ways. Of course, some degree of conformity to agreed linguistic norms is essential for effective communication but these norms can be redefined and, even, subverted where appropriate. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone’s writing to conform to Standard British English rules when this doesn’t represent the language used by the majority of writers and readers.

Hand turning the pages of a dictionary
Problematic discourse and linguistic prejudice within the editing and proofreading profession

My work on linguistic prejudice to date has focused on speech and, specifically, negative attitudes towards accents and their speakers. One example of the impact of such attitudes is the discrimination experienced by Kasha, shared in this video (Listen to Britain 2017), who moved to the UK from Poland in 1990. The hostile reactions that she has received, based on how she speaks, have made her question her Polish identity and have driven her to seek expert help for reducing and modifying her accent.

Kasha has clearly internalised the social bias against her accent, as she describes her pronunciation as ‘incorrect’ and talks about her accent as a ‘problem’. Disappointingly, her accent reduction coach also engages in this sort of negative discourse, saying that she’ll help Kasha ‘get rid of’ and ‘eradicate’ her accent and will help her to use more ‘elegant’ vowel sounds. Given the differential status of a Standard Southern British English accent and Polish-accented English, it is no surprise that Kasha claims to feel ‘empowered’ after these coaching sessions.

The reason I mention Kasha’s story, although it focuses on spoken rather than written language, is that this is exactly the same type of discourse that we encounter elsewhere and is, in fact, as prevalent within the editing and proofreading profession as in the accent reduction industry. It is not uncommon to come across the following terms in editing and proofreading discourse:

  • ‘standard’ and ‘colloquial’
  • ‘right’ and ‘wrong’
  • ‘good’ and ‘bad’
  • ‘better’ and ‘worse’
  • ‘normal’ and ‘neutral’
  • ‘uncommon’ and ‘unusual’
  • ‘clear’, ‘pristine’ and ‘impeccable’
  • ‘mistakes’, ‘errors’ and ‘problems’
  • ‘correcting’, ‘fixing’, ‘tidying up’ and ‘resolving’.

All of these evaluations of language are based on social, rather than linguistic, norms. Where linguists merely observe differences, society has a tendency to impose hierarchies whereby (1) some linguistic choices are viewed favourably and others aren’t, (2) some are viewed as unmarked and others as marked, and (3) some are considered to be pure and others to be somewhat tainted. All of this implies to writers that they should strive not just to communicate but to communicate perfectly. But, again, who decides what is perfect when it comes to language use? By enforcing the norms of the powerful elite, aren’t we simply perpetuating a system that favours some voices over others?

Headshot of Erin CarrieErin Carrie is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works at the interface between Sociolinguistics and the Social Psychology of Language, with a particular interest in language variation and change, language attitudes, and folk perceptions of varieties of English. She promotes consciousness-raising activities around language-based bias, prejudice and discrimination.

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Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

3 thoughts on “Linguistic prejudice: time to check our unconscious biases

  1. Stephen Pigney

    Erin, this is a very interesting, thought-provoking article—thank you! I entirely agree that language has to be seen in a social context, and that it is the result of various conventions that have more to do with social structures (including those of hierarchy and privilege) than with any inherent ‘correctness’ in language itself. While agreeing with your central point, for the sake of debate I’d like to offer a slightly different take on this.

    I’m always a little wary of viewing things in terms of ‘powerful elites’ and ‘prejudice’. Society is undoubtedly hierarchical, and it contains elites and entrenched privilege; at the same time, however, that is not all that society is, since society can also be looked at in terms of communities and community-building, and hence how people try to find common ground that enables social interaction. Take the area that I work in: academic editing. On the one hand, academic language might be viewed as the result of various elites (academics) imposing their values on everyone else. I don’t doubt that there is an element of that going on, and certainly much obscurantist academic writing can be interpreted as an attempt by an ‘in’ group to exclude others. But I also think that academia is a huge community of people who have attempted over decades (centuries even) to come up with effective ways of communicating knowledge, science and research.

    When I look at common style guides in academia (e.g., CMOS, Hart’s, APA 6) I don’t see privilege or powerful elites so much as valiant (and ongoing) attempts to make academic writing effective, clear and accessible. APA 6, for example, does not allow much scope for the individual author’s voice, but that’s because it is endeavouring to create a common way of communicating research that can be readily understood by everyone. And, as an editor trying to help an author’s work conform to a particular style guide, I don’t regard this as imposing elite values or a ‘correct’ form of language; rather, I see it as helping an author fit into a community of practice. In so far as one way of expressing something may be ‘better’ than another, it is because one is going to be more effective and readily understood within a particular community. I tend to see language more in terms of different communities of practice (whether academia, hip hop or popular literature) than of elites and privileges (while acknowledging that elites and privilege are also liable to be present within the communities themselves).

    Finally, what I like about ‘standards’ is that they enable conversation. Academic writing ranges from that which perpetuates entrenched beliefs, to that which is highly subversive. What the standards do is enable some form of dialogue between the myriad positions—I see it less in terms of privilege and prejudice, and more in terms of creating an arena for debate to take place. And one of the interesting things that can happen in that arena is that a kind of meta-debate also takes place—that is, the standards themselves can be discussed, challenged and debated. Are standards always neutral? Certainly not. But nor do I see them as always and inevitably reflecting privilege and powerful elites (whether in society as a whole, or within a particular community).

    1. Erin Carrie

      Thanks, Stephen. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the piece I wrote.

      I agree that we have to acknowledge the complexities of the issue and be mindful of people’s intentions, which are certainly not always to demean or disempower others. In fact, when teaching about standard spoken and written language, my students and I always come to the same conclusion – that standardised forms of language (i.e., agreed upon norms) are essential for effective communication but, also, that one group’s norms should not be imposed upon other groups. Said differently, people should (and often are) able to shift their language use to communicate appropriately and effectively with wide sections of the population but should also have the choice to use more localised or regional forms to express and enact their belonging to smaller social groups.

      When you say that APA 6 ‘is endeavouring to create a common way of communicating research that can be readily understood by everyone’, I don’t doubt its good intentions. However, I also don’t doubt that this ‘common way’ is based almost entirely on norms established historically by elite groups. It’s unlikely to reflect an average or widespread way of writing and more likely to encourage people to conform to a standard that the average person has difficulty producing (hence the need for support from editors and proofreaders). To me, this raises issues of accessibility – the more privileged people within our societies are inherently equipped with access to this community of practice and the less privileged have a harder time gaining access and have to seek/pay for support, as and when they can.

      While it is important to make sure that our and others’ language is ‘effective and readily understood’, as you say, there is a wealth of research showing that what we perceive to be effective and intelligible tend to be higher status varieties of language. As I noted in my post, I work more often with spoken than written language and people with regional or second-language accents/dialects of English are frequently perceived to be less intelligible than RP speakers, even though they vastly outnumber RP speakers. And, following on from that, the same speakers are often perceived to be less credible, less authoritative, less competent, etc., compared to RP speakers. I just wonder how much of that also applies when we judge people’s writing – does writing that is less ‘standard’ lead the reader to doubt the credibility, authority and competence of the author? I would venture that it does and I think anyone working in a profession that centres around the written or spoken word has a responsibility to be critical of linguistic conventions and to renegotiate our linguistic norms. In my view, one positive step would be to rethink our discourse around language use.


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