Among Milwaukee renters, over 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult life, compared with 1 in 12 Hispanic women and 1 in 15 white women.
-Matthew Desmond, Evicted
The 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning Evicted, an investigative work by the sociologist Matthew Desmond, uncovered much of the lives of those living in the worst economic conditions in the United States. At first, you might not see the connections between evictions and language, but the association is tight-knit and direct.
Language attitudes refers to the opinions or judgements that we hold about languages and their speakers, and are built gradually over time and with exposure to the given language and to the social circumstances surrounding it. Language attitudes are powerful, and even, in many cases, unconscious. Through a process termed iconization by anthropologist Judith T Irvine, linguistic features (like a specific variant of a vowel) can come to represent their speakers’ “inherent nature or essence” (Irvine 2001) for someone who interacts with a member of the group. In the paper noted above, Irvine gives data from the research of her colleague, Susan Gal, who studied two German-speaking groups in southern Hungary (Gal 1992). Gal found that the two groups took one group’s innovative linguistic forms (meaning that they tried new things when speaking, maybe inventing new vocabulary, for example) to represent their users’ lack of tradition more generally. To quote Irvine, summarizing Gal’s work: “To members of both social categories, the linguistic differences between the two varieties of German are interpreted iconically as evidence of a difference in their speakers’ values (Irvine 2001). What this means is that we use features of the way someone speaks to index who that person is–we judge an entire audiobook by the first words we hear out of it.
Language is one of many social cues we use to determine friend and foe in our everyday lives, and it once had a purpose: given a landscape in which someone outside of your group was likely an untrustworthy rival, the cues helped us to distinguish safe from not safe. But in a world where we strive for inclusion and equality, and for global commerce (which benefits all involved) and intercultural understanding, language attitudes such as these should be evaluated and reformed. Just by recognizing that we unconsciously process people and class them–essentially deciding that we know exactly who they are based only on how they speak–we can mitigate extreme reactions to the world around us.
So how do language attitudes connect with evictions? As Desmond details in his book, evictions can be a serious threat to a family’s well-being, and on top of that, evictions tend to lead to more evictions, creating a cycle that is extremely difficult to get out of. One component of this cycle are the landlords who control the housing that the impoverished rent–sometimes using a large majority of their income to do so (Desmond 2016). A study by Purnell et al. (1999) investigated the reactions of landlords to callers requesting an appointment to look at an apartment they had found in the newspaper. In fact, it was not multiple callers, but one caller, switching among African American English, Chicano English, and Standard American English “guises” (accents). In one area, the Standard American guise secured an appointment roughly 70% of the time. The Chicano and African American guises received appointments only about 30% of the time.
Language attitudes matter to real people every day, because they can systematically deprive them of things that others take for granted. And all of this, based on the way someone says, “hello.”
Desmond, Matthew 2016. Evicted. New York: Penguin Random House.
Gal, Susan 1992. Dialect Variation and Language Ideology. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco.
Irvine, Judith T. 2001. “Style” as distinctiveness: the culture and ideology of linguistic differentiation. In Penelope Eckert and John R. Rickford (eds.), Style and Sociolinguistic Variation, pp. 21-43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Purnell, Thomas, William Idsardi, and John Baugh (1999). Perceptual and phonetic experiments on American English dialect identification. Journal of Language and Social Psychology (Lesley Milroy and Dennis R. Preston, guest eds, Special Issue: Attitudes, Perception, and Linguistic Features) 18 (March), 189-209.