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Wash U linguist analyzes American dialects, discrimination

John Baugh began studying linguistics when he was researching the topic of housing discrimination in California.
Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
John Baugh began studying linguistics when he was researching the topic of housing discrimination in California.

From New York to Los Angeles, people everywhere develop speech patterns unique to their region; however, these varied dialects are discriminated against at times. While this phenomenon is nothing new, two recent films explore the cultural responses to dialects with a racial perspective: Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.”

“From a linguistic point of view, the dialect that’s distinctive to slave descendants in the United States is the result of racial isolation and also the fact that slavery was legal in the South, so the black dialect has been strongly influenced by white Southern speech,” John Baugh said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And then once blacks migrated to other parts of the country, they were still racially isolated in Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, so the distinctive character of the dialect prevailed.”

Baugh is the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University. As a cultural anthropologist, linguist and psychologist, he studies black language and dialects. His new book “Linguistics in the Pursuit of Law” explores how his research on black language has played out in court cases on discrimination and other issues.

Though dialects are often attributed to race, Baugh noted that this is a “misnomer.”

“Your speech has a lot to do with your linguistic exposure as well as personal identity,” he said.

Baugh originally began his linguistic research while exploring housing discrimination in California.

“Many people could not detect that I’m African American based on my speech, but I grew up in an inner city African American neighborhood and rather than sue the respective landlords that denied me housing, I began to conduct experiments in the San Francisco Bay Area and I would modify my dialect when I would be calling up for apartment,” he explained. “Because I grew up in Los Angeles, I could sometimes sound like a Chicano and I would modify my speech in that way.”

According to Baugh, when he changed the way in which he spoke – maintaining the same grammatical structure of the sentence – he received varied responses from landlords.

In regards to a dialect unique to St. Louis, Baugh said, “St. Louis is interesting because it really is the crossroad for the entire country … The linguistic collision results in one of the most fascinating compositions of linguistic dexterity anywhere in the country … the fact that we had a Bosnian population move in after that conflict has shaped the linguistic texture of the area as well.”

Baugh also mentioned St. Louisan and famous rapper Nelly, noting the way he has influenced the region’s dialect.

“Nelly has some very distinctive characteristics that are unique to the hip hop generation of St. Louisans – the [ways] that they say ‘here’ and ‘there,’ which is more like ‘herre’ and ‘thurr.’”

While the conversation focused on the differences in speech between those of different races and regions, the point of varied speech among genders also surfaced.

“There’s a [phenomenon] known as ‘up-talk’ that’s more common with women throughout the United States, and it happens when you make a statement but it sounds like you’re using question intonation,” Baugh said.

Listen to the full conversation:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Caitlin Lally is thrilled to join St. Louis Public Radio as the summer production intern for "St. Louis on the Air." With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Caitlin also freelances for area publications like Sauce Magazine and the Belleville News-Democrat. In her career, she's covered topics such as Trump's travel ban, political protests and community activism. When she's not producing audio segments or transcribing interviews, Caitlin enjoys practicing yoga, seeing live music, and cooking plant-based meals.