Linguicism is a form of prejudice, an "-ism" along the lines of racism, ageism or sexism. Broadly defined, it involves an individual making judgments about another's wealth, education, social status, character, and/or other traits based on choice and use of language.
The word is attributed to the linguist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, who coined the concept in the mid-1980s, and gave it the following definition: "ideologies and structures which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce unequal division of power and resources (both material and non-material) between groups which are defined on the basis of language.
Linguicism is a primarily social phenomenon; in some regions this takes the form of policy decisions against certain linguistic groups, but the two are not necessarily present together (much like racism is social while apartheid is political). Parts of language which may go into this consideration are accents, the size of vocabulary (whether the person uses complex and varied words), and syntax. It may also involve a person's ability or inability to use one language instead of another; for example, one who speaks Japanese in France will probably be treated differently from one who speaks French.
As a form of prejudice, linguicism is often more subconscious than other forms, possibly because not much attention has been raised about it; it is not a cultural taboo as racism and sexism are today. Furthermore, many feel that it is not logically unjustifiable or morally reprehensible to draw inferences about a person's education partly based on their linguistic proficiency. However, as most linguists note, the definition that such people use of what constitutes proficiency is often illogical.
While, theoretically, any individual may be the victim of linguicism regardless of social and ethnic status, oppressed and marginalized social minorities are often its most consistent targets, due to the fact that the speech varieties that come to be associated with such groups have a tendency to be stigmatized.
Since African-Americans speak a particular non-standard variety of English which is often seen as substandard, African-Americans are frequently the unwitting targets of linguicism. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is often perceived by members of mainstream American society as indicative of low intelligence or limited education. Furthermore, as with many other non-standard dialects and especially creoles, AAVE sometimes has been called "lazy" or "bad" English.
The linguist John McWhorter has described this particular form of linguicism as particularly problematic in the United States, where non-standard linguistic structures are frequently judged by teachers and potential employers to be "incorrect," in contrast to a number of other countries such as Morocco, Finland and Italy where diglossia (a single person being able to switch between two or more dialects or languages) is an accepted norm, and use of non-standard grammar or vocabulary in conversation is seen as a mark of regional origin, not of intellectual capacity or achievement.
For example, an African-American who uses a typical AAVE sentence such as "He be comin' in every day and sayin' he ain't done nothing" may be judged as having a deficient command of grammar, whereas, in fact, such a sentence is constructed based on a complex grammar which is different from, and not a degenerate form of, standard English. A hearer may judge the user of such a sentence to be unintellectual or uneducated when none of these is necessarily the case. The user is most likely quite proficient in standard English, and may be intellectually capable, and educated but simply have chosen to say the sentence in AAVE for any one of a number of social and sociolinguistic reasons such as the intended audience of the sentence, a phenomenon known as code switching.
Another form of linguicism is evidenced by the following: in some parts of the United States, a person who has a thick Mexican accent and uses only simple English words may be thought of as poor, poorly educated, and possibly an illegal immigrant by many of the people who meet them. However, if the same person has a diluted accent or no noticeable accent at all and can use a myriad of words in complex sentences, they are likely to be perceived as more successful, better educated, and a legitimate citizen.
Linguicism, of course, applies to written as well as spoken language. The quality of a book or article may be judged by the language in which it is written. In the scientific community, for example, those who evaluated a text in two language versions, English and the national Scandinavian language, rated the English-language version as being of higher scientific content.
The Internet operates a great deal using written language. Readers of a web page, Usenet group, forum post, or chat session may be more inclined to take the author seriously if the written language is spelled and constructed in accordance with the written norms of the standard language.