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Running head: SE & STEREOTYPES
Standard English and Stereotypes:
How Language Perpetuate Stereotypes
Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC)
ENG101 – DT90
Ms. Jessica L. Legg
October 29, 2011
Standard English and Stereotypes
How Language Perpetuate Stereotypes
The language an individual speaks has many more implications than just as a way to communicate, but it can also unite or divide people, create preconceived ideas about race, gender and class. Further, language is the basis of how society members relate to each other, can determine where one is on the social ladder, or how a gender, class or race is treated. Every language, written or spoken, has a standard that is widely accepted by the members of its society. In America, Standard English (SE) is the widely accepted standard, however, there seems to be quite a controversy surrounding what SE really is, its history, how it is used in everyday communications and how it effects people’s beliefs and ideas on many subjects. Over the years, people have formed preconceived notions around what SE is versus what the true definition of it is and how others use it. After all, SE is, of course, instrumental in how people communicate in American society, but people need to understand how it effects the way society members think, act and how stereotypes are formed using it. This paper will discuss what SE is, its history and dialects and how language helps perpetuate stereotypes in race, gender and class.
First, one must understand the history of language and just what it is to get the whole idea of why language is important. According to linguists Bielanski and Speicher (2000), language in itself is a communication system that is shared by a group of people from the same region that has been developed over the years (Bielanski & Speicher, 2000, p. 147). It includes word choice, word order, punctuation, and spelling. In America, Standard English (SE) is the most widely accepted form of written or spoken language. To the layperson, not linguists, SE is NOT a dialect and is the language that should be taught to children and new English speakers because it is widely accepted and thought to be grammatically correct. However, to linguists like McWhorter (1998), SE is a dialect that has been transformed from previous widely-accepted standards of English, like Old English and Middle English, into what it is today (McWhorter, 1998, p. 15).
The layperson also assumes that Standard Spoken English (SSE) and Standard Written English (SWE) are the same. This is clearly not the case as proven by linguists over and over throughout the years. Speicher & Bielanski (2000) determined that SSE and SWE are very different and serve different purposes (Speicher & Bielanski, 2000, p. 149). Speicher and Bielanski (2000) also said that Spoken English is littered with feelings, tone, gesticulations, and other physical actions that emphasize a point and is “context-tied and social” (Speicher & Bielanski, 2000, p. 150), while written language is “decontextualized” (Speicher & Bielanski, 2000, p. 150). When a person hears SSE, it is very different from what would be written on a piece of paper or in a book. SSE can be messy and is usually whatever runs off of the tongue of the speaker, while SWE is very deliberate, concise and reviewed over and over until it is perfect in reference to grammar and language rules. SSE also evolves as time goes on and takes different forms based on its speakers and becomes a dialect.
Linguist Chaika (1994) believes that there is a dialect for every language that is considered standard and the definition of dialect is “the technical name for what Americans usually think of as an accent. Dialect refers to all the differences between varieties in a language, those in pronunciation, word usage, and syntax” (Chaika, 1994, p. 262). Most people believe that SE is completely correct and is not a dialect; however, if an individual reviews the history of SE, it is shown how it is actually a derivative handed down and transformed from Old English, Middle English, and other languages in between. Changes to languages are not fast, and this was the case with SE. Changes to language take a long time, so slow that it is barely noticeable by the users and change does not mean that language is crumbling and decaying. (McWhorter, 1998, p. 8 & 18). To prove that point, look back at Old English and Middle English and compare them to today’s Modern English (SE). Old English and Middle English were considered the SE of their time periods and serve as the base for today’s SE, but neither would be understood by most SE speakers of today’s world. The earlier forms of English are a foreign language compared to what is spoken today. McWhorter (1998) gives an example of the huge differences between Old English, Middle English and Modern English (which in this paper is classified as Standard English) that includes unusual word order and words that do not exist today (McWhorter, 1998, p. 18). For example, compare the Lord’s Prayer using all three languages:
Fæder ūre, thū the eart on heofonum,
sī thīn nama gehālgod. Ūrne
gedæghwamlican hlaf syle ūs tō dæg
Fader oure that is I heuen, blessed be thi name. Oure ilk day bred gif us to day.
Our Father, who is in heaven, blessed be your name. Give us our daily bread today.
(McWhorter, 1998 p.18)
Looking at the example above of the Lord’s Prayer, it is clear users of language have transformed it into something very different, which helps prove that SE is not a pure language but a dialect of another form of English. The example shows how language changes over time with the addition of new words, meanings of words and word order change, and an individual can see how language can develop or evolve. McWhorter (1998) also uses as another example how Latin spread over Europe into many different regions where people had little contact with each other which caused the development of the Romance languages of today: French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian (McWhorter, 1998, p. 21). This division and re-creation of a language is because Latin took on the flavor of the regions and French, Spanish, and other romance languages, became dialects of Latin. They changed so much from the original Latin that they became completely separate languages. This proves that spoken language changes because people who are in close proximity to each other will emulate what others are doing.
This is not, of course, a conscious process, but put broadly, people in intimate enough contact to be a community will all basically speak the same way; people with no contact will eventually speak different languages, but people with some contact will speak distinct varieties of a single language (McWhorter, 1998, p. 23).
Professor Peter Trudgill (1999), a sociolinguist, believes that most people feel Standard English is widely accepted as the most important dialect in the English language world from an academic, national and collective point of view. Using SE allows people to feel connected and creates a standard for all in the community to achieve.
Being part of community is an integral part of who a person is, whether it is tied to a neighborhood, ethnic background or even place of employment. Speech communities are also part of that picture. Chaika (1994) defines a speech community as a group of people that communicate with each other, share a set of rules regarding standard language use and she states that “the more people interact with each other, the more they sound alike” (Chaika, 1994 pp. 309-310). Chaika (1998) also determines that even though people from a certain speech community speak in an unacceptable dialect, or what the average person considers an incorrect form of SE, does not mean they do not know how to use SE correctly (Chaika, 1998, p. 324). When people use language that is different from the standard, they are classified or stereotyped by that incorrect usage.
In the eyes of American society, SSE ties an individual to a very specific community which then binds that person to a certain segment or role within society. When a person speaks with a certain dialect of SSE, it may be possible to tell where one stands in society, or at least that is what Americans believe. Observing speech communities can show the social layers, social systems, and pertinent social alignments within American society structure (Chaika, 1994, p. 309). Studying SSE, it is important to recognize how Americans look at it and feel about language and the importance that surrounds it. Language is not just for communicating, it also gives meaning and credence to one’s social standing.
Linguists see dialects as a progression or evolution of language, but the layman sees them in a negative light and does not readily accept it as a proper form of language. In society, only grammatically-correct SE should be used according to the layman. Chaika (1994) feels the study of dialects shows that the way people speak is tied to how they see themselves (Chaika, 1994, p. 270) and how one is treated and viewed by others. People who speak grammatically-correct SE are seen as educated, able to compete in society and successful. Those who speak grammatically incorrect SE (Ebonics, Pidgeon English, Pittsburghese) are seen as lower class, uneducated, even social misfits, unlikely to amount to much other than the working poor (Chaika, 1994, p. 283). These thoughts are seen as stereotypes in most societies, but in American it allows for people to feel superior to others based on race, gender and class.
American society, according to Gregory Mantsios (2003), does not like to discuss class in public and considers itself classless (Mantsios, 2003, p. 308); however, it does recognize the middle class as it is all-encompassing. Every once in a while, there will be a conversation looking at upper and lower classes, people will call them “the wealthy” and “the poor” (Mantsios, 2003, p. 309) and the way they use SE sets people apart from each other in a very easily distinguished manner. In today’s society, people who have graduate degrees live in the same neighborhoods as the person who has a GED. Everyone dresses similar, go to the same supermarkets and movie theaters so one of the best ways society sees how to tell which rung on the social ladder a person belongs is by SSE, “because of the homogeneity of other aspects of culture, speech is likely to be the most reliable determiner of social class or ethnic group” (Chaika 1994, p. 271). For most, being part of a social class or ethnic group is important as it gives them a sense of belonging, however, this belonging can also perpetuate stereotypes regarding race, gender and class. These stereotypes are created in the minds of those who are in power and are perpetuated by language used to describe them.
In America, the group that maintains power is the group that is the standard that all others look to as the model of achievement. Currently, the white male is affluent and powerful and he speaks Standard English, so that is the standard for all Americans. The language that is used in American is full of stereotypes that are based on race, gender and class.
To understand the stereotypes that language helps define and perpetuate against race, one must understand the definition of race first. According to Merriam Webster (2011), dictionary, race is:
According to Wikipedia, the biological definition of race is based on phenotypic characteristics and are “often influenced by and correlated with traits such as appearance, culture, ethnicity and socio-economic status” (Racism, 2011). Most school students are taught very early the differences of race based on skin color foremost, then features and hair type secondary. This is the idea that is ingrained into American society and belief system. This belief that the human species are so different based on physicality made it easy to consider one superior to another (Racism, 2011). According to Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Calgary, J. S. Frideres (2010), “In the 19th century, many scientists subscribed to the simple belief that human populations are divided into separate races” (Frideres, 2010).
It has been proven scientifically, that there are not any specific genetic characteristics that are common to all blacks, all whites or non-whites that ties them together. In the 1960’s, scientists started pulling away from Darwin’s notion of evolution and started looking at a gene-centered view of evolution (Racism, 2011). Wikipedia also states the Human Genome Project, “which is the most complete mapping of human DNA, indicates that there is no clear genetic basis to racial groups” (Racism, 2011). Scientific study after scientific study tried to prove that there was a definition of racial categories by physical attributes, but all of them have failed. The genetic studies of the last few decades have only added more nails to the coffin of biological race. Which leads us to believe that race is a social construct that is now widely accepted throughout the United States. People that look alike and act alike are more comfortable around each other. They learn how to communicate with each other using written and spoken language that is understood by them. Ian F Haney López (1994), professor of Law at the University of California, Berkley, argued that “race must be viewed as a social construction. That is, human interaction rather than natural differentiation must be seen as the source and continued basis for racial categorization” (Haney- López, 1994). When one looks at race as a social construct and not a biological definition, one can start to see how language plays a big role in the role of racism and aids to the many stereotypes about various races.
Race and language are tied together inexplicably and leads to people to believe stereotypes about the speaker. “Language manipulates the realities of race and racism”, argues Mary White Stewart and Rosemary Dixon. (2010, p. 142) “Language is fluid”, stated Dixon and Stewart (2010, p. 144), helps make social connections, and helps people understand each other. When people make a statement that may be construed as a racist comment, they can be labeled racist. For example, Senator Harry Reid made a comment regarding then Senator Obama when he announced that he was going to run for President. According journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (2010) in their book, Game Change; Senator Reid stated that the US was ready for a “light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect unless he wanted one” ( 2010). The statement caused an outcry among all different types, black and white. The people wanted to fry Senator Reid. They labeled him a racist instead of looking at the statement, realizing that it was a comment on US society and how race is really viewed. People in America do not speak of race, but allude to it in subtle language and accept stereotypes that are described in everyday conversations. Society looks at the way people speak and automatically classifies or stereotypes what they are and where they belong socially.
Looking at the dialect that some black people use, Black English (BE), people have a preconceived opinion of those users of BE. Those users are automatically classified as uneducated and poor. Equally important, in education, using SE is a critical piece of how a student is perceived. A student who speaks what is considered grammatically correct English is perceived as a good student. Students who use the dialect of their speech communities, like BE, are perceived to be bad students, making failing grades and not able to retain what is taught. This again falls along those lines of stereotyping which usually is not what is happening with these students. Even though they are using the vernacular, they do know what is considered correct English (Chaika, 1994, p. 324).
BE is used in a lot of urban communities where there are large populations of minorities. These neighborhoods are often seen as the ghetto and that the only people that live there are the uneducated and the poor. This is a standard stereotype that language perpetuates. When one hears the word ghetto, people make assumptions and have a picture in their mind that the word reflect, usually run-down homes, low income public housing, welfare recipients, drug dealers and a host of other negative stereotypes that usually link back to blacks. In reality, there is a great mix of diverse social classes in these urban neighborhoods, from the young white college student, to blacks that are considered middle class, to renters and homeowners. It is hard to change the opinions of outsiders, those who do not live in these communities, to the true realities of them except by changing the way one speaks about them. Language is such a critical piece of our world and how we communicate who we are and what we are, but it allows for those preconceived notions, stereotypes to abound not only in race, but in gender as well.
To get to the next examples of language and stereotypes within gender, a person must first understand what gender is and the difference between gender and sex. Sex is the biological characteristics which define a person as either girl/woman or boy/man. Just like in race, gender is a social construct and not a scientifically proven item. Society defines gender as the roles and relationships between men and women, and the entitlements and responsibilities that go along with those roles. For example, women are expected to be the moms and take care of the children and the house; men are supposed to the breadwinners and take care of the outside of the house. This division of the sexes by gender is promulgated by the language that we use day-to-day. According to Judith Lorber, (2004), “as a social institution, gender is one of the major ways that human beings organize their lives” (Lorber, 2004, p. 55). A person sees that in the way American society is patriarchal according to Allan Johnson (2004), “it is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. It also involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women” (Johnson, 2004, p. 165). Men are considered dominant and control through positions in politics, business, legal and even religion, where women are considered weaker and not able to handle the pressure of these positions. The language that is used in society continues the stereotypes of women being the weaker of the sexes. Using words such as businessman, councilman or policeman, continue to downplay a women’s right to be in those positions and to achieve success in them.
Here is another opportunity where language affects how we look at something and keep the stereotypes of men and women in existence. The words we use do reflect how we look at men and women. By gender being a social construction, language plays a large role because it uses very specific pronouns that place men above women in society. In the past, when one used a generic pronoun, it was widely accepted to use he when you did not know the sex of the person being talked about. There have been attempts to change that by using he or she to make language gender neutral, but it is very awkward and which goes first he or she, she or he? According to McWhorter (1998), “he or she is a construction of inherently limited domain. Conscious and forced, it could never go beyond writing and formal speech” (McWhorter, 1998, p. 119). Some people, like Allan Johnson (2004) look at this use of language as an “oppressor of women” (Johnson, 2004, p.165). Throughout language, words that put man over woman have been used as in mankind or even history. To see the stereotypes, women are seen as pretty, dainty, and men seen as handsome and strapping. If a woman is described as handsome, it usually means that she is unattractive or manly. If a man is described as pretty, it means that he is a little feminine.
Researchers like Anthony Mulac, Carol Incontro and Margaret James,(1985) have found gender differences in language using a wide variety of contexts. “The importance of these gender-linked tendencies can be seen in the effects of such language differences on observers judgments of communicators, says Mulac ((Mulac, Incontro & James, 1985). In another of their studies, (Mulac et.al, 1985) found how “the way in which men and women speak helps perpetuate gender stereotypes” (Mulac et al, 1985). Gender and race stereotypes are not the only items that are stereotyped by language, but so is class and the language one uses to talk about class.
Again, one must first understand what social class is before getting into the language stereotypes of class. Social class is defined by sociologists as group of individuals that are in very similar position economically, including their occupation, which is important as it determines income, stability and benefits (Gilbert, 2003, p. 90). Another way to phrase it is power, wealth and prestige, who has it and who does not, marks class. In the United States, which considers all people equal, there is an unspoken division of class, (Gilbert, 2003,+ p. 88) upper class, middle class and lower class. There are additional subdivisions of class that breakdown class into every more defined rankings. These include the elite, upper middle class, lower middle class, working class and poor. Each one of these divisions represent where a person fits in based on financial, neighborhood, career choice and other resources available. The classes can be determined as the haves and have-nots or the powerful and the powerless and everyone else in between. What is interesting about class is also perceptions people have about those classes and where people are supposed to fit based on those perceptions. The way an individual is described and the language a person uses can also determine where they fit into that spectrum. It goes full circle to the issue of language and stereotypes that reflect how we use language puts a person in a specific class. Look at the stereotype of people that use BE as being not only uneducated, but poor as well.
The language people use is seen as an indicator to what class level they belong, at least the stereotypical idea of that class level. Automatically, when a white person hears a black person use the black vernacular, they automatically place them in the ghetto, or when they hear New York Brooklyn accent they place that speaker in the mafia, whether it is a correct assumption or not. When individuals hear the deviation from the acceptable, Standard English, it automatically puts the speaker on the spot and gets them stereotyped. Also certain words that are used, are considered depictions of certain classes. For example, when someone describes a person as uneducated and stupid, that person is automatically classified as poor and probably a minority. However, let’s look at some white male, high school and college dropouts: Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to focus on building Microsoft (Martins, 2010); Simon Cowell, former American Idol judge and music impresario, dropped out of high school at age 16 (Coster, 2010); and Richard Branson, also a dropout of high school who is the billionaire owner of the Virgin brand business (Martins, 2010). These men are uneducated, but definitely not poor.
In conclusion, language is a vital part of a person’s world. It is not only a means of communicating and connecting to others, but it also develops the way a person perceives race, gender and class. Language builds stereotypes and lets them linger in a person’s mind and causes a warped sense of reality. Sometimes stereotypes allow one person to feel better about themselves as they tear down someone else; they are allowed to feel superior. Language continually allows for this keeping ideas or race, gender and class in neat little packages. Black people are uneducated because they speak Black English. A woman is weak and cannot be a success in politics and business because of a patriarchal society that still exists and says that she is lesser than a male counterpart. A poor person will always remain poor and will never be able to rise on the social ladder because society says so and deems them as uneducated and lazy. To level the playing field, language use must change to include less stereotypes and more inclusive dialogue.
People need to understand that is okay for a boy to be pretty, a girl to be strong or a community to use a dialect, since we all speak one anyway. (Remember, Standard English is a dialect). The notion that men and women, blacks and white, rich and poor, are very different and cannot achieve the same goals, is perpetuated by language stereotypes. If we break the language barrier by removing stereotypes in our language, there will be more successes and less people feeling ashamed about who they are and where they come from. If people started accepting that SE is not the only way of communicating and it is okay to speak other dialects of SE, there might be a change in the way we see race, gender and class. People may have a fair and equal chance at achieving what most Americans feel is important, the American Dream.
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