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Often, It's Not What You Say, But 'How You Say It'

Houghton Mifflin

We're human, so we categorize. And throughout this summer of protest and pandemic and politics, we've thought a lot about how race, and class, and gender divide us.

But University of Chicago psychology professor Katherine Kinzler points out that something as simple as an accent can be way more powerful. That we immediately judge people all the time, just on their dialects — and that in fact, we even start doing it as babies.

As far as our identities go, Kinzler argues that human speech is overlooked in a new book — it's called How You Say It. "Language is really fascinating because it's both fixed and malleable, the way we speak can change across our lifetime when we have new experiences," she says. "At the same time, so much of our language is really set in childhood."

Interview Highlights

On how children perceive and use language

Children seem really interested in language early in life. And of course, that makes it a lot of sense. They're in the business of learning language, but also right away they start to see language as providing social information, as providing some sort of a rudimentary map of who might be like you and not like you, who's like each other. And so in that sense, language is really seen as something that can mark and unite and divide social groups beginning really early in life. Their minds are processing the social world and starting to divide people into categories. And then that's a space where it's really easy for society to layer prejudice and stereotypes on top of what kids are learning.

On language biases in children's entertainment

When you display a protagonist, iften that person speaks in what might be considered a standard accent, whereas people who are bad guys might be more likely to speak in a language or a dialect or with an accent that is seen as from a less desirable group. And so in that way, these biases can be subtly communicated to children.

On how speech patterns can change over the course of a lifetime — for example, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Brooklyn accent

I think this is a really fascinating example of both how our voices change, and then also how our speech can reflect something about ourselves and our identity and perhaps even our comfort with ourselves. Linguists have analyzed Justice Ginsburg's speech over the years. And ... they find these two different periods. She did grow up in Brooklyn. But when you listen to her as a lawyer, as she was in the '70s, arguing in front of the Supreme Court, you don't really hear many features of New York English — so the common features that linguists look for are dropping an r-sound at the end of your word, or something we call thought vowel raising, which is vowel change. The classic example is something like "caw-fee tawk." And so you don't hear that during the lawyer years. Now, the idea there is that during those times she might have been trying really hard to sound polished. Now, during the justice years, it's as if Justice Ginsburg returned to her formative linguistic years. She's just at the height of her career. So she's really letting her voice out, which I think is a really inspiring thing.

On the issue of speech discrimination

For people who speak in what others perceive as being a non-native or a non-standard way of speaking, often that can feel as if people are judging you. And in fact, people might be judging you. But so much of our understanding of communication is bidirectional. It's about the listener, too. And so there's a lot of evidence that when somebody doesn't like the way somebody's speaking, or thinks that they're speaking in the wrong way, they can shut down as a listener and stop trying to listen. And so in that sense, people can really overlook qualified people in employment contexts and in many different contexts in life, because they think they're not doing a good job communicating, when in fact the person listening might not be doing a good job listening.

This story was edited for radio by Patrick Jarenwattananon, produced by Art Silverman and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

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Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.