linguistic profiling

Language ideology

In sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, a language or linguistic ideology is a systematic construct about how languages carry or are invested with certain moral, social, and political values, giving rise to implicit assumptions that people have about a language or about language in general. A common type of language ideology are Standard Language Ideologies, the belief that language homogeneity is beneficial to society, such as that expressed by the English-only movement in the United States.

Language ideologies encompass all the explicit and implicit attitudes about language that define what is perceived as "proper" speech. Like other forms of ideology, language ideologies are often politically significant and deeply shape how speakers understand social life, as the assumptions that they involve imply a result without any necessary examination of the facts. While research in sociolinguistics generally holds that all languages are equal in their communicative and expressive abilities, language ideologies may privilege a given lect, language or even linguistic family above all others, claiming it to be intrinsically better for some or all purposes.


Language ideology refers specifically to the perceptions held by people about language and, more importantly, how those perceptions are projected onto speakers. In her work on language and political economy, University of Michigan Professor of Anthropology Judith Irvine, an early pioneer who continues to be instrumental in this field, defines a language ideology as "the cultural system of ideas about social and linguistic relationships, together with their loading of moral and political interests" (1989). Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes define language ideology as "ingrained, unquestioned beliefs about the way the world is, the way it should be, and the way it has to be with respect to language"(2006). This includes assumptions about the merits of homogenous language within a society, the perceived beauty of certain languages, whether certain languages or dialects are seen as intelligent or unintelligent, and other notions about the value of certain ways of speaking. These aspects are all studied in the field of sociolinguistics, but the idea of language ideology is a relatively recent area of inquiry, which is primarily explored in linguistic anthropology.

The study of language ideology is important to many fields of research, including anthropology, sociology, and linguistics. Especially now that anthropology rejects the idea that culture or cultures represent homogeneous isolated entities, language ideology has become a useful model for understanding how human groups are organized, despite cleavages in belief and practice. For example, multiple languages are spoken in any given human society. Therefore a theory of linguistics that regards human societies as monolingual would be of limited use. Instead, speakers of different languages or dialects may share certain beliefs, practices, or conflicts involving a language, set of languages, or language in general. That is to say, speech communities may be regarded as “organizations of diversity” (Irvine 2006) with language ideologies providing that organization.


Standard Language Ideology – As defined by Rosina Lippi-Green, Standard Language Ideology is "a bias toward an abstract, idealized homogeneous language, which is imposed and maintained by dominant institutions and which has as its model the written language, but which is drawn primarily from the spoken language of the upper middle class" (Green, 1997). This represents a belief in standard, uniform way of speaking, which is thought to be a better way of communicating, and also that this is the normal way that language exists. As James W. Tollefson notes, however, “linguists agree that variation is normal and intrinsic to all spoken language, even to standard varieties” (1999). Thus the idea that a standard language, such as Standard American English, has homogenous phonology is an idealization, based not on the reality of the language, but instead on the ideas about what language should be.

A current example (May 2006) of language ideology in action would be the debate in the United States over Spanish speaking immigrants. The political justifications for an official language in the U.S. are entirely based on the embedded principles described by language ideology.

A similar debate concerns the validity of using Ebonics in teaching.

These assumptions are reinforced by the way that language is taught, through the use of textbooks, dictionaries and grammar lessons (Tollefson, 1999).


Language ideology has wide implications for society including moral and political assumptions about how to best deal with language in society, and thus for a politie's language policy.

Standard Language Ideologies often negatively affect the ability of minority language speakers to succeed in education because the teacher's perception of what constitutes proper language, and therefore intelligence, could be biased against the language or dialect spoken by the student. One of the examples of the effect that standard language ideology has on everyday life in modern America is the "linguistic profiling."(Rice, 2006). John Baugh, the inventor of the term "linguistic profiling" has determined that many people can recognize the caller's ethnic dialect on the phone, and if the voice is identified as African-American or Mexican-American, the caller might be a subject to racial discrimination (Rice, 2006).


  • Irvine, Judith (1989). When talk isn't cheap: language and political economy." American Ethnologist 16(2):248-67.
  • Irvine, Judith (2006). Speech and Language Community. Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics. 2nd Edition. Pp. 689-96. Elseivier.
  • Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.
  • Rice, P. (2006). Linguistic Profiling: The sound of your voice may determine if you get that apartment or not. Press Release: Washington University in St. Louis.
  • Tollefson, James W. (1999). Language Ideology and Language Education.
  • Woolard, Kathryn A. and Bambi Schieffelin. (1994) Language Ideology. Annual Review of Anthropology. 23:55-82.
  • Wolfram, W. & Schilling-Estes, N. (2006).American English: Dialects and Variation, second edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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