An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Linguistic justice is central to social justice. Yet it has largely been left out of the swell of academic research and programs intended to address social and racial inequalities on campus and in American society. In fact, while higher education institutions have vocally supported antiracist and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, they have at the same time been active agents in the reproduction of linguistic inequality.

Language variation is highly politicized behavior, from the construct of “standardized languages,” which many consider essential for writing and speaking in academic settings, to narratives about language loss and “endangered” languages.

The Summer 2023 issue of Dædalus on “Language and Social Justice in the United States” examines the consequences of linguistic biases and suggests how we can integrate linguistic justice into our core values. The authors call for expansive approaches to countering linguistic bias—in the witness and jury box, at work, in art, in our everyday conversations, and beyond.

Candid photograph of a teacher sitting around a table and laughing with several high school English students

Language Standardization & Linguistic Subordination

Language standardization involves minimizing variation, especially in written forms of language. That process includes judgments about people who don’t or can’t use the standard forms. These kinds of judgments can unfairly limit people’s access to opportunities, including in educational and professional realms. In this essay, we discuss standardized language varieties and the specific ways beliefs and ideologies about them allow judgments about language to become judgments about people, especially groups of people who share, or are presumed to share, gender, race, ethnicity, social status, education status, and numerous other socially salient identities. After describing how the process of standardization occurs, we illustrate how the expression of language peeves becomes embodied. Finally, we discuss how ideologies about standardized language circulate in higher education to the detriment of many students, and include a range of suggestions and examples for how to center linguistic justice and equity within higher education.

Addressing Linguistic Inequality in Higher Education: A Proactive Model

Although most institutions of higher education in the United States have now developed diversity, equity, and inclusion centers, programs, and initiatives, language equality tends to be excluded from the typical “canon of diversity.” Language remains an overlooked or dismissed issue in higher education while it insidiously serves as an active agent for promoting inequality in campus life. Based on two empirical studies, one of students from Southern Appalachia attending a large urban university in the South, and one of tenured faculty at the same university, I establish the need for the awareness of language inequality in higher education. I then describe a proactive “campus-infusion” program that includes activities and resources for student affairs, academic affairs, human resources, faculty affairs, and offices of institutional equity and diversity. As an interdisciplinary team from different administrative and disciplinary programs within the university, we used a variety of venues, resources, and techniques to educate the faculty, students, and staff about the significance of language inequality on campus that has had an ongoing effect on higher education.

Author Walt Wolfram

Social Justice Challenges of “Teaching” Languages

This essay explores the challenges to linguistic justice resulting from widely held negative perspectives on the English of young Latinx bi/multilinguals and from common misunderstandings of individuals who use resources from two communicative systems in their everyday lives. I highlight the effects of these misunderstandings on Long-Term English Learners as they engage with the formal teaching of English. I specifically problematize language instruction as it takes place in classrooms and the impact of the curricularization of language as it is experienced by minoritized students who “study” language qua language in instructed settings.

Refusing “Endangered Languages” Narratives

Indigenous language endangerment is a global crisis, and in response, a normative “endangered languages” narrative about the crisis has developed. Though seemingly beneficent and accurate in many of its points, this narrative can also cause harm to language communities by furthering colonial logics that repurpose Indigenous languages as objects for wider society’s consumption, while deemphasizing or even outright omitting the extreme injustices that beget language endangerment. The objective of this essay is to promote social justice praxis first by detailing how language shift results from major injustices, and then by offering possible interventions that are accountable to the communities whose languages are endangered. Drawing from my experiences as a member of a Native American community whose language was wrongly labeled “extinct” within this narrative, I begin with an overview of how language endangerment is described to general audiences in the United States and critique the way it is framed and shared. From there, I shift to an alternative that draws from Indigenous ways of knowing to promote social justice through language reclamation.

Author Wesley Y. Leonard

Climate & Language: An Entangled Crisis

Rising ocean levels threaten entire communities with relocation. The continued erosion of Arctic coastlines due to melting ice sheets and thawing permafrost has forced Inuit communities to move to more secure locations. Each move dislodges Indigenous peoples and their languages from ancestral landscapes and ways of knowing, obligating communities to adopt colonial or majority languages. Scholars and activists have documented the intersections of climate change and language endangerment, with special focus paid to their compounding consequences. We consider the relationship between language and environmental ideologies, synthesizing previous research on how metaphors and communicative norms in Indigenous and colonial languages and cultures influence environmental beliefs and actions. We note that these academic discourses—as well as similar discourses in nonprofit and policy-making spheres—rightly acknowledge the importance of Indigenous thought to environmental and climate action. Sadly, they often fall short of acknowledging both the colonial drivers of Indigenous language “loss” and Indigenous ownership of Indigenous language and environmental knowledge. We propose alternative framings that emphasize colonial responsibility and Indigenous sovereignty. Finally, we reflect on emergent vitalities and radical hope in Indigenous language movements and climate justice movements.

Rethinking Language Barriers & Social Justice from a Raciolinguistic Perspective

The trope of language barriers and the toppling thereof is widely resonant as a reference point for societal progress. Central to this trope is a misleading debate between advocates of linguistic assimilation and pluralism, both sides of which deceptively normalize dominant power structures by approaching language as an isolated site of remediation. In this essay, we invite a reconsideration of how particular populations and language practices are persistently marked, surveilled, and managed. We show how perceptions of linguistic diversity become sites for the reproduction of marginalization and exclusion, as well as how advocacy for language and social justice must move beyond celebrating linguistic diversity or remediating it. We argue that by interrogating the colonial and imperial underpinnings of widespread ideas about linguistic diversity, we can connect linguistic advocacy to broader political struggles. We suggest that language and social justice efforts must link affirmations of linguistic diversity to demands for the creation of societal structures that sustain collective well-being.

Black Womanhood: Raciolinguistic Intersections of Gender, Sexuality & Social Status in the Aftermaths of Colonization

In this essay, we highlight the colonial invention of oppositional and binary categories as a dominant form of social sorting and meaning-making in our society. We understand language as a tool for the construction, maintenance, and analysis of these categories. Through language, these categorizations often render those who sit at the margins illegible. We center the Black woman as the prototypical “other,” her condition being interpreted neither by conventions of race nor gender, and take Black womanhood as the point of departure for a description of the necessary intersecting and variable analyses of social life. We call for an exploration of social life that considers the raciolinguistic intersections of gender, sexuality, and social class as part and parcel of overarching social formations. In this way, we can advocate for a shift in linguistics and in all social sciences that accounts for the mutability of category. We argue that a raciolinguistic perspective allows for a more nuanced investigation of the compounding intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and social status that often function to erase Black womanhood.

Asian American Racialization and Model Minority Logics in Linguistics

With increased discussions of racial justice in academia, linguistics has had to contend with long-standing issues of inequality. We contribute to these conversations by considering historical and contemporary racializing tactics with respect to Asians and Asian Americans. Such racializing tactics, which we call model minority logics, weaponize an abstract version of one group to further racialize all minoritized groups and regiment ethnoracial hierarchies. We identify three functions of model minority logics that perpetuate white supremacy in the academy, using linguistics as a case study and underscoring the ways in which the discipline is already mired in racializing logics that differentiate scholars of color based on reified hierarchies. We urge language scholars to reject a superficial multiculturalism that appropriates embodied difference while perpetuating injustices under an inherently white supremacist framework. For those dedicated to greater racial justice in the discipline, we offer actions to critically reflect on and help dismantle existing racializing logics.

Inventing “the White Voice”: Racial Capitalism, Raciolinguistics & Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies

In this essay, I explore how paradigms like raciolinguistics and culturally sustaining pedagogies can offer substantive breaks from mainstream thought and provide us with new, just, and equitable ways of living together in the world. I begin with a deep engagement with Boots Riley and his critically acclaimed, anticapitalist, absurdist comedy Sorry to Bother You, in hopes of demonstrating how artists, activists, creatives, and scholars might: 1) cotheorize the complex relationships between language and racial capitalism and 2) think through the political, economic, and pedagogical implications of this new theorizing for Communities of Color. In our current sociopolitical situation, we need to continue making pedagogical moves toward freedom that center and sustain Communities of Color in the face of the myriad ways that white settler capitalist terror manifests. As we continue to theorize the relationships between language and racial capitalism, frameworks like raciolinguistics and culturally sustaining pedagogies provide fundamentally critical, antiracist, anticolonial approaches that reject the capitalist white settler gaze and its kindred cisheteropatriarchal, English-monolingual, ableist, classist, xenophobic, and other hegemonic gazes. What they offer us, instead, is a break from the assimilationist politics of the past and a move toward abolitionist frameworks of the future.

Author H. Samy Alim

Linguistic Profiling across International Geopolitical Landscapes

Voice recognition lies at the heart of linguistic profiling, a discriminatory practice whereby goods, services, or opportunities that might otherwise be available are denied to someone, typically sight unseen, based on the sound of their voice. The technology that faithfully recreates one’s voice during phone conversations provides the basis on which nefarious, if not illegal, voice-derived discrimination occurs. These denials often go undetected because callers typically believe that the declination of their request for an apartment or a job or a loan is valid; that is, they do not necessarily assume that they were turned down because of negative stereotypes about their speech. I debunk a long-standing myth that exists among well-educated native speakers of the dominant language(s) in the countries where they live: namely, that such individuals speak without an accent. After dispelling this prevalent falsehood, I explore various forms of linguistic profiling throughout the world, culminating with observations intended to promote linguistic human rights and the aspirational goal of equality among people who do not share common sociolinguistic backgrounds.

Author John Baugh

Language on Trial

This essay draws on the case study we conducted of Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the 2013 trial of George Zimmerman v. The State of Florida. Although Jeantel, a close friend of Trayvon Martin, was an ear-witness (by cell phone) to all but the final minutes of Zimmerman’s interaction with Trayvon, and testified for nearly six hours about it, her testimony was disregarded in jury deliberations. Through a linguistic analysis of Jeantel’s speech, comments from a juror, and a broader contextualization of stigmatized speech forms and linguistic styles, we argue that the lack of acknowledgment of dialectal variation has harmful social and legal consequences for speakers of stigmatized dialects. Such consequences include limits on criminal justice, employment, and fair access to housing, as well as accessible and culturally sensitive education. We propose new calls to action, which include the ongoing work the coauthors are doing to address such harms, while also moving to inspire concerned citizens to act.

Currents of Innuendo Converge on an American Path to Political Hate

Uses of innuendo such as enthymemes, sarcasm, and dog whistles by politicians and the resulting interlineal readings available to some listeners gave us an early warning about the type of relationship that has now obtained between Christianity and politics, and specifically the rise of Christian Nationalism as facilitated by President Donald Trump. I argue that two currents of indirectness in American politics, one religious and the other racial, have converged like tributaries leading to a larger body of water.

Liberatory Linguistics

While the college population in the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, few studies focus on the goal of linguistic justice in higher education teaching and learning—a critical factor in achieving all forms of social equity. I offer liberatory linguistics as a productive, unifying framework for the scholarship that will advance strategies for attaining linguistic justice. Emerging from the synthesis of various lived experiences, academic traditions, and methodological approaches, I illustrate how a structural ignorance of language justice affects the lived experiences of people across the world. I present findings from my work with Black undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty members as they endeavor to embed a justice framework throughout the study of language broadly conceived. I conclude by highlighting promising strategies that can improve current approaches to engaging with structural realities that impede linguistic justice.