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March 2, 2005 - Linguistic Profiling - 2005-03-01

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: linguistic profiling.

WALT WOLFRAM: "What I mean by linguistic profiling is to hear a voice and on the basis of that voice make a judgment about that person which would sort of rate them or exclude them or in some sense not treat them fairly."

RS: Linguist Walt Wolfram at North Carolina State University says this sort of thing happens all the time. For example, he notes that Americans tend to think of people from New York City and the South as sounding less educated than others. Unless you ask a New Yorker or a Southerner, that is.

AA: Lately, Professor Wolfram has been working on a series of television documentaries. The aim is to help take some of the social stigma out of language differences in America.

WALT WOLFRAM: "What's taught in terms of the English language is always going to be taught in some sort of dialect framework. So for example, where is there no dialect of English? The Midwest certainly has a dialect. I may not be as salient as Southern dialect, but it's still dialect.

"So it's actually, although most learners of English as a second language aren't aware of this, it's virtually impossible to learn English without learning some dialect of English."

AA: "Well, I'm curious what you think of this fairly recent development of American companies putting call centers in India, using Indian workers to answer technical questions, and computer support and so forth. And the workers are being taught American English, they're being shown American programs. In some cases they're supposed to tell customers that they're actually in the United States. And I guess there's been some anger at outsourcing or offshoring of jobs, but what do you think about this, and ... "

WALT WOLFRAM: "Well, I mean that's a perfect example of linguistic profiling, in a sense. So, for example, if an American calls up and they hear an Indian accent, you know, even though the speaker may have been a native speaker of English, which is often the case, there's a certain kind of prejudice that they have.

"What we're trying to do in our series of documentaries is to show the American public, and particularly in the state of North Carolina where most of them have aired, what we're trying to do is show them how linked language is with cultural background, how natural language differences are as a part of different cultural experiences, and how this is something that should be accepted -- and in fact embraced -- as a part of cultural heritage, rather than rejected as not standard English and therefore not worthy for mainstream uses.

"So, for example, we've done documentaries on mountain speech; we've done documentaries on Outer Banks speech, you know, coastal speech; we've done documentaries of sort of the whole state of North Carolina, showing African American dialects and so forth. And the point of our documentaries is to counter some of the illegitimate feelings and reactions that people have to these varieties when they hear them."

AA: "And what's been the reaction to programs that take that position?"

WALT WOLFRAM: "So far the reaction has been very positive. I mean, we've gotten very few complaints that our programs are trying to simply encourage bad speech."

RS: "Now, are these programs being used in the public schools?"

WALT WOLFRAM: "Yes, actually we have an experimental program in middle schools where we use vignettes from these programs to educate students about language differences as a part of cultural differences."

RS: "And how are the kids responding?"

WALT WOLFRAM: "The kids love it. The fact of the matter is, people find language differences intriguing. They don't always view them fairly. But they sort of stop and listen and people speak differently. And if you can sort of take that plum and dangle it before kids and then run with it, they find it really an engaging activity."

AA: Walt Wolfram is the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor in the English Department at North Carolina State University. His accent, in case you're wondering, is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

RS: That's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And you can download all of our segments at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "The English Language"/Winston Slade (Southern country singer) 1997

I've searched the dictionary, every page in my thesaurus Trying to find the words to fit into this chorus And I can say I love but I want to say so much more I don't think the English language has the words I'm looking for

So I go oh-ee oh-ee oh-ee oh-ee ooo-ee ooo-ee ooo Aa-aa baby, I've got it bad for you Oh-ee oh-ee oh-ee ooo-ee ooo-ee ooo And that's about as close as words can come