Thomas Pendergast Vladeck home

Language and Discrimination

I just finished reading The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. Amazing book. Among a lot of reactions to the book, I had a thought about language and discrimination. It proceeds along the following lines.

First, humans evolved in small communities. So it’s natural to assume that at first glance we perceive a lack of intelligible language as an indicator of poor intelligence or something “wrong”, since the small groups we evolved in would not be multilingual, so they would have no a priori reason to expect anything else.

But all normal humans have language that is equally expressive and sophisticated, since language is literally “invented” de novo by each generation with the existing language around them as mere ingredients into their invention. Ostracized or marginal groups won’t share the same inputs, and so will invent a different language. For instance, African American Vernacular English is just as “sophisticated” as Standard American English, it’s just different. But for whatever reason it has been natural to perceive it as a failure to be able to speak “correct” English and so to assign those speakers a lower intelligence / ability.

Languages change so rapidly that it only takes one generation to start speaking differently. So if a group gets marginalized, they will speak a new language almost instantly by historical standards, and then the fact that the speak differently will be a wedge between them and other groups.

The book also got me thinking about how we teach language and our respect for different dialects. It seems that curricula should explicitly say, for example, that AAVE and Standard English are different languages, rather than put down AAVE as corrupted Standard English. I remember that in my junior high and high school, which were both over 50% Black, that AAVE was not appropriately respected in this manner. This changes the dynamic from “’He be walkin’ is wrong” to “‘He be walkin’ is right but in a different language, and not correct in Standard English”. It’s a more complicated conversation but more correct.