Reader Response Journal

English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States by Rosina Lippi-Green

This book is an excellent overview of language discrimination in the United States, with a particular focus on the racial aspects of that discrimination. Lippi-Green begins the book by laying out some linguistic basics, which non-linguists often don’t know about language, namely that 1) all spoken languages change, 2) all spoken languages have equal potential, 3) grammar and communicative effectiveness are separate issues, 4) written and spoken language are fundamentally different and 5) variation is intrinsic to all spoken languages (Kindle locations 771-776). She then examines the ways language changes over time, the fact that everyone has an accent of some sort and how standard language ideology (SLI) is established. She explains that Standard American English (which she refers to as *SAE) is a myth which doesn’t exist in reality, but which nonetheless strongly influences the ways we think about language and leads to the subordination of other languages and varieties and the types of discriminatory practices she outlines in the rest of the book. She presents a model of subordination, where “language is mystified, authority is claimed, misinformation is generated, targeted languages are trivialized, conformers are held up as positive examples, non-conformers are vilified or marginalized, explicit promises are made and threats are made” (Kindle locations 2591-2593). These messages of SLI and subordination are transmitted through the educational system, children’s movies (particularly those by Disney), and the mass media, all of which she describes in detail. She then examines the consequences by providing overviews of court cases focused on language discrimination in employment, which prove how little the courts are invested in preventing or punishing the perpetuation of linguicism. Lippi-Green then explores the specifics of a number of non-standard varieties of English, including Black English, Southern English, Hawaiian Creole, as well as the language of immigrant groups and their descendants, particularly Latinos and Asians. She also includes two case studies, focused on the moral panic surrounding the Oakland Ebonics controversy and linguistic profiling as an aspect of housing discrimination. She ends by reaffirming that “to speak freely in the mother tongue without intimidation, without standing in the shadow of other languages and peoples” is a basic human right, which language subordination tries to deprive people of (Kindle locations 10429-10430), and reasserts that language discrimination in the US is a cover for racial and ethnic discrimination.

This book was mostly useful for providing lots of examples that prove linguicism is real, along with definitions and context for how standard language ideology benefits powerful groups in the US. The chapter on court cases was depressing, but not surprising, because language is not a protected class in US civil rights/anti-discrimination law, so language discrimination cases fall under the national origin umbrella, and are almost never successful. I also really enjoyed the chapter on Hawaiian Creole, which is a topic I briefly encountered during grad school, for a classmate’s language and power presentation on Pidgin English in Hawaii. It’s definitely interesting and something that I’d be curious in learning more about. I’m also curious about the Northern Cities vowel shift, which as a Wisconsinite, I probably have plenty of exposure to. Lippi-Green’s research on Disney and the way they use foreign accents for primarily bad or evil characters was interesting, and is definitely the most famous part of the book, but didn’t seem that compelling to me. Admittedly, I’ve read a bit about Disney’s racially problematic characterizations, which is an area of research that developed extensively after the publication of the first version of the book, so I’m glad that Lippi-Green was one of the first people to delve into the problematic aspects of Disney movies, but I wish the chapter was stronger. Knowing the basic idea is pretty much enough from me, and the details in the chapter didn’t really illuminate it more for me. I felt similarly about the chapter on the Oakland Ebonics controversy, another area I’ve read several different analyses of. She does a good job laying out how it followed the typical path of a moral panic, but I don’t feel like I understand it any better after reading her take. That said, I was definitely glad I read this book, because linguicism matters and this is one of the foundational books in the area.

Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology and discrimination in the United States (Second Edition). New York, NY: Routledge.

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