Sociolinguistics, Language Prejudice, & Regional Stereotypes

Y’all come back now, ya hear?” – Ellie May, The Beverly Hillbillies

No one ever lived after he’d decided ter kill ‘em, no one except you, an’ he’d killed some o’ the best witches an’ wizards of the age — an’ you was only a baby, an’ you lived.” – Hagrid, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Whether you realize it or not, you may judge each of these phraseologies and their accents based on where you live.

If you’re from America, you might associate certain stereotypes with the South, and the obvious Southern drawl might trigger prejudice, whether consciously or subconsciously.

One example of this appears in The Routledge Handbook of Sociolinguistics Around the World, wherein a detailed study was conducted by Bucholtz, Bermudez, Fung, Edwards, and Vargas on the perceptual dialectology of California in 2007.

The study found:

“that the most salient linguistic boundary is between the northern and southern regions, although, reminiscent of Clopper and Pisoni (2006), category labels ranging from ‘surfers’ to ‘hicks’ played a role in the social map.”

Essentially, the way you speak – often regionally-based or relative to your sub-culture – may result in a label of some kind.

If you’re from Britain, a coarser accent, like the one spoken by Hagrid above, might be associated with lower-class stereotypes, as opposed to those considered “posh.” 

As mentioned last week, the wealthier classes have always attempted to distinguish themselves through their language’s social patterning. The lower class accents and phraseology, therefore, are often distinctly different from those of the aristocracy.

Either accent might trigger conscious or subconscious prejudices as well. As soon as a person’s mouth opens to speak, their class may be revealed, and the prejudices associated become sharp and glaring.

Sociolinguistics visits all of this and more.

What is sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics is “the study of language in relation to social factors, including differences of regional, class, and occupational dialect, gender differences, and bilingualism.” – Oxford

The sociolinguistics of a country are often nationally-based.

Funnily enough, Americans, who speak English, might not be able to differentiate between the stereotypically “posh” accents and the stereotypically lower- or middle-class ones in the UK.

They may not feel the same prejudices against the person speaking as their British counterparts, whose ear is attuned to these differences and mind is attuned to the prejudices associated with them in their country.

Likewise, those from other English-speaking countries likely don’t have the same associations with the American Southern accent and the South as Americans do.

Therefore, for foreigners, specific social patterning might not reinforce the regional prejudice related to these stereotypes, such as a person’s level of education or intelligence.

This is all deeply entrenched, rooted in the history of the country, regions, and the values, norms, traits, and behaviors associated with them across time.

Whether the regional values, norms, traits, and behaviors have evolved or not, the linguistic stereotypes remain.

Step 3 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Adapting in Action

Once you realize you’re the monkey in a foreign culture, you can’t go around, swinging from limb to limb. After being made aware of and accepting your differences, you must start to adapt.

This is where the monkey must come out of his cage and start behaving like a human to “fit in.” Slowly, he’ll begin to adapt some of their behaviors, and the following advice will ease the process.

5 Steps to Adapting

  1. Seek the “Why” – Instead of seeing things as black or white, wrong or right, seek the “why” when faced with cultural differences. Knowing why your host culture believes certain things or behaves in ways that are strange to you will help you understand local culture.
  2. Adopt Your Host’s Worldview – To help you seek the “why,” try to put yourself in the shoes of your host and momentarily adopt their worldview. Leave your gavel and robes at home, because you’re not here to judge or condemn; you’re here to learn. Look at yourself as a student and your host culture as the teacher.
  3. Rely on Analogies – A German businesswoman in France was once advised to forget the clockwork functioning of a business. She was told, instead, to view French companies as “royal courts,” where the CEO is king, and she was an earl, building her network until she earned favor. Analogies like these can help you visualize how to behave in the culture and interpret what’s going on around you.
  4. Apply Stereotypes Wisely – While stereotypes are similar to analogies in that they can aid cultural interpretation, these simplified representations of people shouldn’t be applied in an overarching manner. Doing so can be dangerous and hurtful. However, even though it’s important to remember that we’re all individuals and should never be treated like stereotypes, looking at an individual in a cultural context can allow understanding. As Kevan Hall at the Global Integration Blog notes, “If we focus on individuals irrespective of their cultural context we may assume everything is personality. Using US-normed tests on extraversion and introversion, for example, has led to a very high proportion of mainland Chinese participants scoring as introverted. Not a very useful result.”
  5. Apply Empathy Generously – Remember that empathy – or putting yourself in another’s shoes – is essential to understanding. To truly understand your hosts and their culture, you must be culturally empathetic.

Adapting Inaction

Employee A is from Japan. She’s moved to Spain. Spanish greetings involve a kiss on both cheeks. This makes Employee A very uncomfortable.

The Japanese find touch inappropriate and even intimate. When introduced to the Spanish form of greeting, Employee A does not seek the “why,” adopt her host’s worldview or feel empathetic. Instead, she views this greeting style as wrong and inappropriate and chooses to remain physically distant. Every interaction that follows is awkward, for both Employee A and for her hosts.

Employee A does not adapt to the simplest of cross-cultural differences – greetings – which will make it even harder to fully integrate into the culture.

Adapting in Action

Employee B is also from Japan but looks at this greeting from the Spanish perspective. It is not meant to be uncomfortably intimate; it’s a gesture of friendliness.

She chooses to adapt this simple greeting into her behavior, even though it gives her discomfort at first. After a while, she starts to get used to it, despite the fact that limitations on physical touch are deeply ingrained in her culture.

Her hosts appreciate her effort, and as she starts to adapt other Spanish behaviors, she has a much easier time integrating.

She may even move onto adopting behaviors and ideologies of her host culture, which we’ll talk about next week.