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What y’all say? Study finds dialect can determine earnings potential
Research finds speech stereotyping
 
Published Thursday, October 31, 2019 11:47 am
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

FILE PHOTO
Research by the University of Chicago found that dialect can impact how much money Americans can earn, especially African Americans. Regional speech differences, researchers found, can contribute to racial and regional stereotypes.

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How you talk can determine what you earn, especially for African Americans.


Research from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy – published Sunday in the Journal of Human Resources – finds that speech patterns strongly affect a person’s wages, particularly for black Americans. English is spoken differently across the country, the research confirms, but regional speech differences can contribute to racial and regional stereotypes.


The paper by Harris Professor Jeffrey Grogger finds that workers with racially and regionally distinctive speech patterns earn less compared to people who speak in the mainstream. Among southern whites, speech-related wage differences are largely due to location, with workers who speak with a regional dialect who live in rural areas earning less than those in urban areas.


For black folks, differences in wages are explained by what Grogger terms as sorting, in that mainstream-speaking African American workers sort into jobs that involve intensive interactions with customers and coworkers and as a result earn sizable wages. Examples include medical and health service managers, construction managers, sales and retail workers, dietitians, and first-line supervisors/managers of non-retail sales workers.


“While language has been studied in extensive detail by linguists, relatively little is known about how a worker’s speech is related to his or her wages,” said Jeffrey Grogger, the Irving Harris Professor in Urban Policy at Harris. “By studying the dialects of African American and southern white workers, we found that wages are strongly related to their speech patterns – with those who speak in a mainstream dialect paid more.


“For southern whites, this is largely explained by family background and where they live,” Grogger said. “For African Americans, however, speech-related wage differences are not explained by family background, location, or personality traits. Rather, members of the black community who speak in a mainstream dialect work in jobs that involve intensive interactions with others and those jobs tend to pay more.”


The analysis of speech has unlocked prejudices and biases. Linguists have shown that listeners can generally identify the race of a speaker based on short audio clips. Social psychologists have shown that both black and white listeners routinely rate what’s called African American Vernacular English speakers are lower than Standard American English speakers in terms of socioeconomic status, intelligence, and even personal attractiveness.


“While more research needs to be done, it appears that since listeners generally prefer mainstream to nonmainstream speech, this results in higher wages for mainstream-spoken workers in highly interactive sectors,” Grogger said.


Grogger has observed similar “occupational sorting” in his research about workers’ speech in Germany, a country with wide variation in regional dialects, where workers who speak with a distinctive regional accent experienced a reduction in wages by an amount that is comparable to the gender wage gap. In addition, workers with distinctive regional accents tended to sort away from occupations that demand high levels of face-to-face contact.


“Our research shows that the phenomenon of occupational sorting goes beyond the United States and might be universal. Regardless of location, people have strong views about the speech of others – and these views have economic and societal consequences,” Grogger said.


Data for Grogger’s U.S. research come from audio collected during the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which is a large nationally representative panel survey of the labor market behavior of people who were ages 12 to 16 years old in 1997. After reviewing each audio file, listeners were asked to specify the speaker’s sex, race/ethnicity, and region of origin.

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