In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Linguistic Profiling and Language-Based Discrimination

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundations and Extensions
  • Phonetic and Acoustical Analyses
  • Linguistic Discrimination in the Workplace
  • Evidence of Linguistic Bias in Housing Markets
  • Educational Studies: Bilingual and Bidialectal Considerations
  • Language and Gender: Evidence of Bias in Linguistic Style and Conversation
  • Language Usage among Racial and Ethnic Minorities
  • Linguistic Prejudice and the Law
  • Linguistic Human Rights
  • Alternative Perspectives

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Linguistics Linguistic Profiling and Language-Based Discrimination
John Baugh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0267


Linguistic profiling and other forms of linguistic discrimination were first attested in the Old Testament. The coinage of the word shibboleth traces its origin to the Book of Judges 12:6, where the inability to pronounce that word correctly would result in death; “They told him, ‘Please say shibboleth.’ If he said, ‘sibboleth,’ because he could not pronounce it correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.” Since then, other manifestations of human conflict and discrimination frequently exhibit linguistic demarcation in one form or another, and these shibboleths evolve over time. Warring factions may eventually make peace, as old rivalries come to be displaced or resolved. Advances in technology exacerbated these trends, as more-rapid modes of transportation increased contact and conflict among speakers of mutually unintelligible languages, accompanied by the development of increasingly efficient deadly weaponry that coincided with global expansionism along with sporadic conquests and the ensuing oppression of human enclaves throughout the world. The advent of global markets and multinational immigration has further accelerated circumstances where diverse human factions may use linguistic (dis)similarities as one of several means through which individuals formulate perceptual boundaries between groups that are familiar or unfamiliar. When compared to the historical longevity of discrimination based on language, linguistic evaluations of this phenomenon are relatively recent.

General Overviews

Haugen 1972 is among the first works by many professional linguists to call attention to the stigmatization of bilingualism as experienced by various immigrant groups in the United States. Lambert 1972 and Tucker and Lambert 1969 are experimental studies that expose further evidence of linguistic bias in bilingual (e.g., French and English in Canada) and bidialectal circumstances (e.g., mainstream Standard American English and African American vernacular English in the United States). Preston 1989 is a formulation of perceptual dialectology that provides orthogonal confirmation of such biases, through elicitations of opinions about superior-to-inferior varieties of American English. Explicit accounts of linguistic profiling are described in Purnell, et al. 1999 regarding housing discrimination and in Baugh 2000 in relation to testimony about different speakers’ dialects and racial identities during murder trials. Squires and Chadwick 2006 produces complementary analyses by uncovering differential dialect discrimination against minorities seeking to purchase homeowners’ insurance. In Zentella 2014, evaluations of linguistic profiling share echoes of Einar Haugen’s early observations about prejudice against bilinguals, albeit with specific relevance to native speakers of Spanish who were obliged to speak English exclusively at their places of employment. Jones, et al. 2019 discovers unintended bias against black Americans by professional court reporters who regularly mischaracterized their statements during trials. When viewed collectively, matters of linguistic profiling and language discrimination persist in many social domains, thereby confirming the existence of one demographic dimension of human inequality.

  • Baugh, John. 2000. Racial identification by speech. American Speech 75.4: 362–364.

    DOI: 10.1215/00031283-75-4-362

    A survey of legal cases devoted to murder trials where the dialect of suspects or defendants was central to witness testimony. The phrase “linguistic profiling” first appeared in this article, and that concept has since expanded to include prejudicial, and often illegal, reactions to the speech or writing of individuals whose language usage was used as the basis of discrimination against them.

  • Haugen, Einar. 1972. The ecology of language. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A collection of interdisciplinary chapters that describe the intersection between linguistic diversity and America’s expanding global immigrant population. “The Stigmata of Bilingualism” is most relevant to linguistic discrimination, and it stands out among an array of other chapters dealing with a wide range of bilingual considerations that address linguistic prejudice against those who are not native speakers of English, with special relevance to the United States.

  • Jones, Taylor, Jessica Rose Kalbfeld, Ryan Hancock, and Robin Clark. 2019. Testifying while black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English. Language 95.2: 216–252.

    DOI: 10.1353/lan.2019.0042

    Court stenographers in Philadelphia repeatedly produced inaccurate transcriptions of African American English (AAE), including different morphosyntactic and phonological features of AAE. These errors were consequential, changing official court records that would have significant legal repercussions for typical speakers of AAE.

  • Lambert, Wallace. 1972. Language, psychology and culture: Essays. Selected and introduced by Anwar S. Dil. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Foundational research on societal and personal dimensions of bilingualism and biculturalism, including results from carefully controlled matched-guise experiments that revealed differential attitudes toward French and English in Canada. These attitudinal differences were measured with Likert scales that considered friendliness, trustworthiness, and educational status, among other traits.

  • Preston, Dennis. 1989. Perceptual dialectology: Nonlinguists’ views of areal linguistics. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Foris.

    Opinions about language usage were solicited in Indiana and Hawaii regarding perceptions about dialect differences, with primary emphasis on preferred manners of speaking in contrast to speech that was deemed less desirable, or incorrect. The field of perceptual dialectology is introduced and formulated in this volume.

  • Purnell, Thomas, William Idsardi, and John Baugh. 1999. Perceptual and phonetic experiments on American English dialect identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18.1: 10–30.

    DOI: 10.1177/0261927X99018001002

    Controlled experiments were conducted that showed bias against vernacular African American and vernacular Mexican American varieties of English in contrast to the dominant Standard American English dialect, which was preferred by landlords. Accurate identification of the race of speakers was determined with high rates of accuracy upon hearing the single word “hello.”

  • Squires, Greg, and Jan Chadwick. 2006. Linguistic profiling: A continuing tradition of discrimination in the home insurance industry? Urban Affairs Review 41.3: 400–415.

    DOI: 10.1177/1078087405281064

    An audit-pair study that exposed linguistic and racial bias against minority speakers who were seeking to purchase homeowners’ insurance. These findings confirm that some insurance agents would deduce the race of prospective clients during telephone calls. In many instances, these agents then denied minority prospects from purchasing homeowners’ insurance that would otherwise be available.

  • Tucker, Richard, and Wallace Lambert. 1969. White and Negro listeners’ reactions to various American-English dialects. Social Forces 47.4: 463–468.

    DOI: 10.2307/2574535

    An experimental study of diverse AAE speech styles that includes well-educated and less well-educated black speakers who were evaluated by diverse white and black (i.e., Negro) listeners. Each listener evaluated individual speech samples with a Likert scale that included various demographic categories such as education, wealth, and friendliness.

  • Zentella, Ana Celia. 2014. TWB (talking while bilingual): Linguistic profiling of Latina/os and other linguistic torquemadas. Latino Studies 12.4: 620–635.

    DOI: 10.1057/lst.2014.63

    Bilingual New Yorkers who were native speakers of Spanish were forced to speak English at their workplace under all circumstances, including personal conversations that were unrelated to their job. A survey was conducted, revealing differences of opinion about the importance and appropriateness of demanding exclusive usage of English.

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