Thursday, April 5th, 2018...4:23 pm

Us Versus Them: Discrimination as Illustrated by the History of English

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Rachel Petkau

The age-old issue of discrimination is reflected in language. An “us versus them” mentality is easiest to measure in words and numbers, stereotypes defined with words like “primitive” and “civilized.” Though it is obvious that discrimination has an impact on language use, it is less clear whether language has had an impact on the methods and severity used in separating groups of people. My primary object in this post is to show why the English language has not only had an impact, but has actually been a deadly tool in the establishment of negative interracial and interethnic relationships.

The “us versus them” dichotomy creates a sense of solidarity within a group that creates it, as Eriksen asserts in Ethnicity and Nationalism: “[Ethnic] stereotypes are crucial in defining the boundaries of one’s own group… In the vast majority of cases stereotypes imply, in some way or other, the superiority of one’s own group” (30). Throughout the history of English, it has been useful for people to divide themselves, grouping together as English speakers to preserve their common identity despite socio-political boundaries. For example, during the official settlement of northern England by Scandinavians (the Danelaw), preservation of distinct sociolinguistic communities would have allowed solidarity between the northern Anglo-Saxons and those kings governing them. It has also been helpful to create distinct speech communities within English itself; however, this very division also justifies discrimination among ethnic and linguistic groups.

Social prestige has driven the development of the English language throughout its history; indeed, it would be odd to assume there is any living language that is not impacted this way. One of the easiest examples to come by is the heavy influence of the Norman Conquest on the English language; the Normans’ French was prestigious and powerful, thereby having the power to change English. As a result, political influencers hold greater linguistic sway, and the knowledge and use of French and French words became a marker of prestige following the events of 1066. Though it existed on a continuum, French-influenced linguistic variation between social classes encouraged and enforced distinctions between social groups and political positions.

Today, the effects of language on social prestige are far reaching and, by some standards, catastrophic. Consider, first, the introduction of the term “race” to English as an indicator of the “major groupings of mankind, usually defined in terms of distinct physical features or shared ethnicity” (OED s.v. race, n.6, sense 1d). While it existed with other meanings earlier, simply being a group of people descended from a common ancestor or some such concept, this use of the word originated in the 18th century and went on to drive academic and social discrimination from that day until this. Driven by already-conceptualized ideas of race, Samuel George Morton “published all his raw data, and […] his summary tables are based on a patchwork of apparently unconscious finagling. When his data are properly reinterpreted, all races have approximately equal capacities” (Gould 503). His study would fuel further scientific comparisons of race and reinforce pre-existing stereotypes.

What difference does a defined term make? At first glance, perhaps none, but language has a profound impact on the way humans think. If an English-speaking person looks at the two hues below, that speaker will see different shades of the same colour; a speaker of Russian will identify two distinct colours. In the same way, a speech community relies on the existence of words for abstract concepts, like race, in order to distinguish perceived differences or boundaries between humans.

Image: Cårsón.

The amount of discrimination occurring in the world is astounding, considering the amount of information available to the public. General consensus is that race has little or nothing to do with ability, intelligence, or competence, as is discussed by Lieberman in his article “Herrnstein and Murray, Inc.” It would be natural to think that stereotypes concerning large and diverse groups of people should, therefore, dissipate. However, proof can do little when discriminatory perspectives are built into the very words used daily in regular society. “Language users make strategic use of lexical and syntactic manipulations to produce linguistic masking devices that […] offer subtle tools for discrimination while masking reality and reducing perceived conflicts of interest” (Ng 118). When the most common way of saying something is imbued with discriminatory “manipulations,” it is not always easy to identify the underlying warped worldview.

This also manifests itself in instances of language planning. Where a descriptive linguist would assert that any primary speaker of English speaks “correctly”, societal standards have carved out a different picture. Words, phrases, and morphological features associated with less prestigious forms of language, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), are dismissed as “wrong” language. Dismissal of words like “ain’t” or the assessment of lexical items in unfamiliar contexts as incorrect, like “literally” used in hyperbole, disparages speech communities that use these linguistic phenomena. In many cases, basilects such as these are associated with particular racial, ethnic, or age groups; AAVE is a prime example in being almost exclusively associated with black Americans. In evaluating certain types of language as improper, other members of the English speech community have an excuse to look down at users of them for supposedly “objective” reasons.

Much else can be said, and has been said, on these subjects but it is important to draw attention to them further. If society as a whole can realize the unfairness rooted in languages, and particularly in English as it is such a global tongue, there is a chance for change. Whether during the Middle English period or today, there have always been discriminatory attitudes perpetuated through the English language. It is time to do away with that.

Works Cited

Cårsón, Andrëw P. “which blue is blue?” Lingua Videre, Accessed 22 March 2018.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. 3rd ed., Pluto Press, 2010.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Morton’s Ranking of Races by Cranial Capacity.” Science, vol. 200, May 1978, pp. 503-509.

[OED]. Oxford Egnlish Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2008, Accessed 18 March 2018.

Ng, Sik Hung. “Language Based Discrimination.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology, vol. 26, no. 2, 2007, pp. 106-122.

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