Monday 8 May 2023

"Sounding Black": Speech Stereotypicality and Ethnic Stereotypes

Language is an important marker of social category and social category information can activate stereotypes which again depend heavily on the listener. In their first experiment, the authors of the study had participants listen to twenty audio recordings of Black North American (14) and Black British (6) speakers and rate how stereotypical they found them, guess the likely ethnicity and nationality, and indicate which adjectives (from a list of thirty adjectives) people would associate them with (e.g. athletic, criminal, lazy, poor, rhythmic, uneducated, unintelligent, loud, dirty, aggressive, inferior). 

In the second experiment, the sample listened to (weakly or strongly) stereotypical Black American speakers and was asked to choose one of two faces (weakly or strongly phenotypical) associated with the voice. Results showed that "speakers whose voices were rated as more highly stereotypical for Black Americans were more likely to be associated with stereotypes about Black Americans (Experiment 1) and with more stereotypically Black faces (Experiment 2)".

Given the interconnectivity between language, social categorization, and stereotypes, it is likely that individuals who “sound Black” are more likely to be identified as Black Americans and therefore more likely to be associated with stereotypes about the group. One way individuals may be thought to “sound Black” is through their use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). AAVE is a non-standard dialect of American English closely associated with and spoken predominantly (but not only) by Black Americans (Cutler, 2003; Rickford, 1999). Often denigrated as slang or improper English, AAVE is in fact a valid language system, with regular phonological and grammatical features such as -ing dropping (e.g., “goin”’ vs. “going”), r-lessness (e.g., “fo”’ vs. “four”), negative concord (e.g., “He ain’t seen nothin”’), and the use of habitual be (e.g., “She be workin”’ indicates “She’s often working”) (Pullum, 1999; Thomas, 2007; see Jones, 2015 for more on regional variations in AAVE). Like speakers of other non-standard dialects, speakers of AAVE are seen less favorably than speakers of the more standard General American English in most contexts (Payne et al., 2000; Koch et al., 2001; Dent, 2004; Rodriguez et al., 2004; Billings, 2005). Speakers of AAVE are seen as less competent, less sociable, less professional, less educated, and of poorer character than speakers of more standard American English (Payne et al., 2000; Koch et al., 2001; Dent, 2004; Billings, 2005). As with the Southern U.S. dialect, many of the traits associated with AAVE are also associated with its dominant speakers: Black Americans (Devine and Elliot, 1995; Maddox and Gray, 2002). For instance, individuals show a greater implicit association between weapons and AAVE speakers than more standard speakers (Rosen, 2017), suggesting that stereotypes about criminality and violence, often associated with Black Americans, are also linked to AAVE speakers. Further, AAVE’s close association with Black Americans has also led to linguistic profiling, or discrimination against those who speak a certain way due to their assumed membership in a social group. Discriminating against someone for their way of speaking can allow for anti-Black bias to circumvent legal protections, leading to worse outcomes and fewer opportunities in areas such as housing for those who use AAVE and are assumed to be Black (Purnell et al., 1999; Massey and Lundy, 2001).

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- Kurinec, C. A. & Weaver III, C. A. (2021). Frontiers in Psychology, 12, link
- photograph by John H. White (Chicago, Illinois, August 1973, copyright Documerica Photography Project), via


  1. Many, many thanks for the share!