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Linguistic profiling

The term linguistic profiling is not in itself new, but in recent months seems to have taken on two fresh meanings. The key idea behind both is that the ethnic group a person belongs to can be identified from the way he or she speaks.

One sense stems from the older psychological profiling, a technique increasingly being used by law-enforcement agencies to deduce the character and motivations of an unknown person who has committed a serious crime; here, the voices of suspects yield clues about their origins and identities. Linguistic profiling has also been in the news in the US in another sense (almost certainly derived from racial profiling, as are other phrases like ethnic profiling and facial profiling — see Words of the Year below — that are less common), as a new term for a long-standing form of racial discrimination (for example in housing) based on whether a telephone caller sounds black or not — in this sense the profiling is done by those who exercise discrimination. This second meaning is mainly associated with John Baugh, professor of education and linguistics at Stanford University, who has done research in this area.

Confusingly, linguistic profiling has an older, more neutral sense — techniques employed by educationalists to diagnose and treat children with language problems such as dyslexia.

He found that when he showed up to see places in person, they were suddenly unavailable, and he suspected he only got the appointment on the telephone because, as he says, he’s a black man who doesnt sound black.

Analysis, National Public Radio, Sep. 2001

Johnson is suing the landlord for “linguistic profiling,” a form of racial discrimination the courts have yet to fully recognize. His case will be set for trial early in the new year.

ABC News, Dec. 2001

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Jan. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-lin1.htm
Last modified: 12 January 2002.