Katherine D. Kinzler’s “How You Say It” addresses how people sound when they talk and its effect on how they are perceived. This area overlaps considerably with the subfield called sociolinguistics, whose worldview is well represented by Kinzler. Sociolinguistics has sometimes been subject to the charge of simply describing rather obvious things with elegant vocabulary. The charge is indiscriminate but has some truth in it, and Kinzler admirably steers clear of stressing tenets such as “People speak differently with intimates than in formal settings,” which hardly seem like hot news to most of us.
What makes sociolinguistics a subject worth engaging with are the surprises, and Kinzler’s book is full of them. She reveals the extent to which language imprints our brains and how we are neurologically programmed to be sensitive to it. Even if we lose a language after early childhood and no longer speak it in adulthood, learning it will be easier because of deep-seated neural settings permanently etched by that first language. People are more viscerally aroused by the curses in their first languages than ones learned later. In one of Kinzler’s studies, kindergartners were shown a clip of a white girl speaking English and then clips of two adults, one a Francophone white woman and the other an Anglophone Black one. The children actually supposed that the white girl would grow up to be the Black woman, so deep-seated was their sense of language as marking identity. Fourth graders, on the other hand, had internalized race as the deciding factor.
Kinzler’s main interest, however, is in linguistic discrimination. Amid our discussions of racism, sexism and even classism, we don’t spend much time thinking about the ways we can be biased when it comes to how people speak. It is, however, one of the last prejudices permissible in polite society. As Kinzler notes, “Linguistic bias is part of our basic cultural fabric. It is so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about it. It’s sanctioned by the law, it’s allowed by culture, and it’s practiced so frequently that people do not even realize when it is happening. Linguistic discrimination is seen as normal and typical, and because of this, it flies beneath the radar.”
The latter point is key: As with so much discrimination, linguistic bias is often subconscious and intertwined with other kinds of prejudice. In “Lethal Weapon 2,” the Danny Glover character describes a South African as having an accent he puts down with an elaborate pejorative, where the humor is in the sheer arbitrariness of the judgment. That kind of judgment, however, can result in things much less amusing.
Black earnings decrease to the extent that one has a perceptible “blaccent.” College students were played a recording of native, idiomatic English being spoken — by an Ohioan, in fact. When the accompanying photo was of an Asian man, the students heard the speaker of the recording as having an accent, but not when the photo was of a white man. The Honolulu D.M.V. denied a job to a Filipino man who had spoken English his whole life, claiming that his accent made him difficult to understand, when an examination revealed that he was not only effortlessly comprehensible but well spoken in general. Kinzler advises that we legislate against linguistic discrimination specifically rather than by national origin, as cases like the one with the Filipino man can be justified if an organization has hired other Filipinos who happen not to have accents.