In academic circles, language has traditionally been taught in a strict, grammatically correct way. While using the King’s English–the grammar focused language of the British upper class–can be useful in writing, most people don’t speak in the “proper” tongue. Unfortunately, this means some accents have more societal clout than others. Economic class, race, and ethnicity play the biggest role in this hierarchy. For unhoused people, who tend to come from low economic classes and are more likely to be POC, discrimination awaits simply for the way they speak.
The British Empire was once the largest in the world. As such, the English language spread to every continent. When colonizers moved into these overseas territories, they wanted to keep themselves separated from locals who they perceived as lesser. They did this by implementing caste systems, making it impossible for non-white people to have social mobility.
The longer colonists stayed in the Empire, the more their accents differed from those in Britain. Of course, the most variation from the King’s English came in the lower class. The upper class accents changed too, but while they may have no longer spoken in posh accents like the British monarchs, they still wanted a way to retain linguistic superiority.
Race also plays a big part in lexical discrimination. Black people in particular are affected by this. African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) has been forming for the past 400 years or so in the U.S. It combines influences from English and various West African languages.
Today, AAVE is sometimes viewed as a “Gen Z accent”. This is harmful, to say the least: yet another thing white people have co-opted from black culture. Although the use of AAVE is common in pop culture, accent discrimination is still rampant. Media such as Saturday Night Live have equated AAVE to a “Gen Z accent,” meanwhile black students across the country are afflicted by tone policing–which tries to attack the tone of a statement, not what is actually being said. Many teachers will shame black students in particular for how they speak.
Immigration from across the world has also resulted in accent differentiation. Many immigrant accents are targeted and made fun of by white media. Even for children of immigrants and their descendants, this humiliation can cause a shift away from their traditional culture.
According to the Association for Academic Surgery, “Someone who speaks with a British accent may be perceived [as] being well-educated and of higher socioeconomic standing, while negative assumptions might be made for different accents. This type of bias serves to not only create discrimination in hiring, but also promotion, career advancement, and contributes to the ‘bamboo ceiling.’
Speaking in an accent that is deemed improper can make ordinary things such as finding a job much more difficult. Having a non-white and or non-English name can also have the same effect.
This hierarchy of accents is not only present in former and current British colonies, but in other colonized nations as well. Spain is infamous for its institution of racial castes in Latin America.
But, is it really that bad to speak in the way of people in the place you come from? According to The Article, “One of the great names in modern linguistics, William Labov, wrote a seminal paper titled ‘The Logic of Non-Standard English’. Responding to a claim that African-American children of pre-school age lack the faculty of language, he demonstrated that they in fact speak a sophisticated dialect of English that enables them to formulate complex arguments.”
No one should be judged based on the way they speak. Accents do not determine the capabilities of a person. Unhoused people are too often written off because they sound “uneducated.” In reality, lexical discrimination is just another way of being classist and racist.
The idea of the American Dream has long been a pillar of the U.S. That facade is fading each day. Don’t mistake that as a reason to not care about patterns of exclusion. We cannot move forward and make change for the better before we understand what is broken within our society.
The next time you hear someone correct the way another speaks, ask yourself, was the point the latter was making still conveyed? If it was, then you likely just heard a microaggression. Whether or not the former meant it does not matter.
Unhoused people deserve opportunity just like us all. No one is better than any other person. They deserve equitable shelter and food too. But, before you correct someone’s English, you must think of the implications of your actions.