Linguistic Discrimination: What it is and How to Avoid it

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linguistic discrimination

You Said What????


They can bring people together and they can just as easily tear them apart. Linguistic Discrimination can come in so many names:

  • Jargon
  • Slang
  • Ebonics
  • Textspeak
  • Bureaucratese
  • Technobabble
  • Gibberish


The result, however, remains the same. The use of words has often served to separate groups of people through a language known only to them. The term for this is Linguistic Discrimination. It implies that if you don’t speak how I speak you aren’t as good.

linguistic discrimination

Linguistic Discrimination

Linguistic Discrimination is an often forgotten barrier to communication. We forget (or ignore) that communication is not just words, it’s meaning and interpretation.   I think of how much time I spend decoding the Facebook and text shorthand used by my grandchildren and relatives before I can grasp their message. I think about how I spend more time googling my doctor’s diagnosis than I spend at the doctor. And I think about the blank stare of my siblings when my father and I, who were both government workers, would begin talking in the acronym laden jargon of the Department of Defense. Each of these situations all involve messages using the English language, but age and occupation obstruct meaning.


medical jargonJargon

In the article “A call to arms: let’s get rid of all the jargon!” Badun Eunson talks about the stages jargon goes through. Depending on its use jargon can move from a simple sub-language that reinforces solidarity and promotes clarity to the dense jungle of a private language for the “in-crowd” to a culture of jargon vs. counter-jargon complete with ridicule and offense.

Sometimes it seems as if groups of people work so hard to promote solidarity within them that they create isolation from everyone else. At this point words can become an unintentional weapon of oppression.

Linguistic discrimination, in a nutshell, This term can be applied to situations as broad as workplace English only policies or as specific as being left out for a failure to decode the 100,000+ acronyms that make up normal federal government conversation. The techniques may differ, but the result is the same: separation.


Detonation vs Connotation

In an article we published in February 2017, I discussed the differences between denotative and connotative meaning. Every word has one or several denotative meanings. These are the definitions of the word that appear in dictionaries. They are the direct, explicit meanings that are accepted by the speech authorities. Connotative meanings are the feelings that we associate with words. They are derived through an individual’s life’s experiences and can be different for each person receiving your message. (See our previous article on connotation and denotation). While you may assume the dictionary meaning to be generic and non-offensive, the connotative meaning depends on the person receiving the message.


Gender Inferences

In the modern environment, gender slanted phrases are no longer appropriate. Twp of generations ago, we were taught that “he” and “man” could be gender neutral. At that time it was appropriate to say, “If an actor is good, he could become quite rich,” and mean any actor or actress.   But as we became more cognizant of the gender equality, acknowledging the female in our language has become expected.

But gender inferences go deeper than whether we use he or she.   According to J.T. Wood (2007), gender also affects styles of language. This is based on societal expectation. While becoming less pronounced, feminine and masculine styles of language still influence our perspective of the communicator. The feminine style of language tends to be more emphatic, polite and focused on others. A masculine style of language tends be more direct, forceful and impersonal.

Men and women use both masculine and feminine language styles. Appearance, mannerisms, and style of language that are in-congruent can be a distracting, creating another barrier to effective communication.


linguistic discriminationCultural Inferences

When I first thought about cultural inferences in our language, Ebonics came to mind. But I quickly realized that there are other, equally unique varieties of English that affect audience perception. If the presenter is speaking from behind a curtain, your impression may change if he/she is speaking in Queen’s English, Standard English, or Working-class English. Or what if the speaker has a thick Spanish, Slavic or German accent? An individual’s home language tells an audience much about the culture he/she grew up in or now lives in. Working toward a Standard English can reduce cultural inferences.

A second cultural distinction that affects interpretation of English communication is whether the message is from a low-context or high-context culture.   Low-context culture uses language that is direct and specific. This is common in English and European languages. In contrast, high-context cultures are more descriptive and indirect in their speech. This is a characteristic of many Latin and Asian languages. Even when using the English language, a speaker from a low-context culture can sound rude or detached to a listener from a high-context culture. A high-context speaker can seem wordy and ambiguous. The difference between the two can cause misunderstanding of the messages.


Avoiding Linguistic Discrimination through Sensitivity

Communication should be a mindful activity. The words people use, matter. When you communicate, either through spoken or written language, it’s important to keep your audience in mind and consider if the words and message you are sending will promote a spirit of inclusion or a sense of exclusion. In Communicate by Kathleen Verderber, Rudolph Verderber and Dianna Sellnow, we are given tips for using language that is inclusive and not offensive:


  1. Adapt your vocabulary to the level of your listener. Adjusting your vocabulary to others, selecting words that others understand, demonstrates respect.
  2. Use jargon sparingly. The key to effective use of jargon is to use it only with people who you know will understand it.
  3. Use slang that is appropriate to the listeners and situation. Slang is informal vocabulary developed and used by particular groups. It excludes those who are not a part of the group. Slang should be avoided if the audience may not share the same characteristics.
  4. Use inclusive language. Change your words to eliminate the generic he by using both male and female pronouns (i.e., he or she) or by using plurals (i.e., they).
  5. Use non-offensive language. Think about how you adjust your language to avoid offending grandma. Use the same consideration for your audience.


Think before you speak

As an effective communicator you don’t want to just transfer words and sentences, you want to transfer meaning. By considering your audience’s gender, culture, and group, you increase understanding, thereby improving communication. But like your audience, you also have a gender, culture and group affiliations that steer your language. It takes conscious attention to recognize the Linguistic Discrimination that exists in speech practice to adjust your manner of speaking to a different, diverse audience. Your choice of words will serve to build bridges or build walls between you and your audience.

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One thought on “Linguistic Discrimination: What it is and How to Avoid it

  1. elenasts

    May 18, 2017 at 8:42am

    This article reminded me of college. Literature was my major but we also had Linguistics for one semester.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author


      May 21, 2017 at 1:02am

      Linguistics is not something often thought of when it comes to communication, but it truly is an important subject.

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  2. Tiara Wilson

    May 19, 2017 at 2:03am

    This article was such a great read. I’ve never known what linguistic discrimination was. I’ve never really paid much attention to this.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author


      May 21, 2017 at 1:04am

      Thank you. Sometimes just a little attention goes a long way.

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  3. Louise x (@withlovefromlou)

    May 19, 2017 at 2:17am

    I know a LOT of people who should think before they speak. Sometimes I just sit and cringe at the things that come out of their mouths :'(

    Louise x

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply
    • Author


      May 21, 2017 at 1:07am

      That is so true.

      Permalink  ⋅ Reply
  4. Author


    June 2, 2017 at 1:53pm

    Thank you! We hope our work is useful and it’s great to hear that we might be assisting visitors.

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  5. Author


    June 2, 2017 at 2:04pm

    As long as our website name is included as originator, I’d love for you to share it with as many people as possible. Its a subject that needs to be shared.

    Permalink  ⋅ Reply

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