Skip to content

Linguistic Profiling

April 7, 2010


The video below from 20/20 explores linguistic profiling, or whether or not a listener can determine the race of a person by the way they speak. It is true that a person can be quite accurate in their judgments of the race of the unseen speaker.

For one woman, Rosa Rice, the sound of her voice prevented her from being allowed to view a room in a boarding house when she called to inquire about it. Rice then called the St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council (EHOC), who performed an experiment that involved people of different races calling the same renter.  The white callers were all told that the room was available, and were asked if they wanted to  view the room.  The African American callers were all told that there were no rooms left to rent.  This looks to me like a case of racial discrimination based on the way a person sounds.  That is, callers who were speakers of African American English were not treated as well as those who spoke a more standard dialect of English.

The experiment done by EHOC closely resembles an experiment performed by linguist John Baugh.  Baugh looked for rooms for rent in the “housing” section of the newspaper.  He then called the numbers three times each, asking if there were any rooms available.  In the first call, he used African American English, in the second he used a Latino accent, and in the third he used a more standard dialect of English.  According to Baugh, he generally got the most positive response when he used the standard accent, while the minority accents received a more negative response.  The following video provides more information about the experiment.

What do you think?  Can you tell the race of a person by the way they sound?

Also, check out this link that has 10 different people reading the same phrase, and see if you can tell what race they are by what they sound like.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Shipra permalink
    April 10, 2010 2:45 am

    Amy, I think this a great article. Having traveled and lived in many different places around the world, I have been pretty good at being able to tell accents apart and identify where a person was from. It’s funny to think now, that I always thought of this as a good skill to have because you can sometimes tailor your conversation based on where the person was from to make the conversation more interesting and maybe even more effective. I never thought that people would use accents to discriminate against each other. It scares me to think that people might be doing the same to me since I have a strong Indian accent.
    I think a language and the way it is spoken, is something that is tied deeply to one’s upbringing and culture. If anything, people should be proud of their different accents.

  2. Louisa permalink
    April 12, 2010 4:25 am

    This is a great article. One thing that struck me in the 20/20 clip was their surprise with the idea of linguistic profiling. Linguistic profiling seems to have always been a part of our culture and society. I would love to see what type of experiments could be done on racial profiling outside of housing.

  3. April 27, 2010 7:00 pm

    This doesn’t surprise me one bit, though it frustrates me a great deal.

    I find it is absolutely true that you can tell race, among other salient social facts, about a person from their speech patterns. I have a toddler, so I watch an ungodly amount of little-kid TV. What you don’t realize until you hear the contrast is that nearly every voice actor in kids’ TV is speaking SAE, with an unmarked coastal accent. The exception that I’ve found is Backyardigans, where two of the characters, Uniqua and Tyrone, are clearly voiced by black children; while their English is standard in grammatical structure, their accents are noticeably black. I keep it on the TiVo roster not just because I like it (OMG THE DANCING), but to make sure my son grows up hearing many accents and learning to listen to all of them.

    I’ve seen Little Bill, Bill Cosby’s children’s show, a few times; I’d assume the voice actors are black, because all the characters are, but their voices are much less marked as non-white. Which is very much in keeping with Bill Cosby’s personal politics, obviously.

  4. Samarah permalink
    October 31, 2010 3:27 pm

    I think that it is important that studies like this are being done to demonstrate the pervasiveness of racism in our society today. While I think studies and articles like this are important for heightening people’s awareness of linguistic discrimination the root of the problem still lies in the racial stereotypes that often dictate how we perceive one another. We should continue to educate people about the validity of all dialects. However linguistic discrimination is only one aspect of the larger problem of social and racial discrimination, we definitely need to find better ways to educate children on the value of diversity within language and culture.

  5. Scott Jenkins permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:53 pm

    It is unsurprising (yet no less disheartening) that a person’s speech can be used as a basis for discrimination. However, it is important to note that such attitudes go in all directions; one can find contempt for a certain minority dialect in almost any culture. In an area where AAE is the primary dialect it is likely that a person speaking a more standard version of English, regardless of ethnicity, will be viewed negatively as an outsider. In this sense, linguistic expression is just one of the many ways human beings find to separate themselves from outside groups, while creating bonds based on common speech patterns within their own community.

  6. Karehina Mango permalink
    December 10, 2013 12:32 pm

    One’s accent or how one speaks speaks can make one a target of indirect discrimination. Linguistic profiling is quite global in nature. In Ghana, linguistic stereotype is gradually leading to the extinction of some languages that are seen as minority or inferior. Either the minority language speaker code switch with the language seen as prestigious within where they find themselves or abandon their native language all together. This experiment proves that stereotypes control the thinking of the majority in the world.

  7. Genevieve Owurasah permalink
    December 12, 2013 2:28 pm

    I was rather thinking being able to tell where someone comes from by listening to the person’s voice is a good skill. It is not so difficult a task, anyway. However, it must not be used for discriminatory purposes. Offering or denying people favours based on where they are perceived to come from or the language they speak is a form of indirect discrimination. We must not encourage it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: