You are on page 1of 11

Kowalczyk Sociolinguistic Analysis of Ethnophaulism

As a direct result of our nations political and social changes in the last fifty years, a predominant lexical trend has been the rapid decline of racially or ethnically charged language, at least in the public and media related arenas. Recent political and social commentary, in both media and academia, has followed a trend toward what is considered politically correct, or PC, speech. Likewise, as a reflection of this trend, the language used in everyday conversation has moved toward remaining politically correct. Among the terms falling into the category of politically incorrect speech are terms that denote racial groups, known as racial slurs, and slurs toward nationality. For example, the terms nigger and honkey are used to refer to ones race, while polak or kraut refer to the national heritage of the individual in question. Also included among the phrases recently deemed taboo, are those with gender or sexual orientation biases, such as queer or slut. The shared characteristics of these words are their potential social harm and the sometimes-long history of oppression and denigration they represent. The word ethnophaulism, meaning any term of disparagement, first coined by psychologist and philologist A. A. Roback, is frequently used to summarize the various forms of derogatory speech, such as those mentioned here (Mullen, Smyth 343). Studies conducted by researchers have attempted to understand and quantify the overall prevalence of such ethnophaulisms, though little recent research seems to target the affect of our cultural revolution on the pervasiveness of these terms. The purpose of this research survey and subsequent study is to analyze and forecast the prominence of

Kowalczyk racial and other derogatory slurs and the affects had upon them by our new social consciousness, otherwise known as politically correct thought. In order to affect this research a survey was conducted with a general foundation on the work of Wen Li and Linda Yu at Ohio State University in 1974. Their work centered on the relationship between racial prejudice and the extent and duration of contact with members of that group. In the study, American and Chinese students were

questioned about their feelings toward members from the opposite group and results were categorized according to the respondents level of interaction with members from that group. In this way, Li and Yu were able to quantify the level of racial prejudice as it related to time spent in a diversified atmosphere (559-560). Although their work was based on direct interpersonal interaction, a similar method can be used while substituting the politically correct social environment and the resulting reaction of persons within it over time. While Li and Yu measured the changes due to personal relationships, this study of ethnophaulisms has attempted to measure the change in lexical vocabulary due to immersion in the PC environment. The survey used consisted of the respondent writing out as many racial or derogatory epithets as possible within a two minute period. For the purpose of this survey, non-specific derogatory terms such as bastard and jerk were not included in the analysis (though the prevalence of such terms in the responses should be addressed in subsequent studies). The use of restricted time allowed the results to be impartial; while the two-minute mark seemed to reflect the point at which most of those surveyed failed to recall any further terms. Although the surveys were anonymous, certain demographic data was collected in order to quantify the results of the surveys. The categorical

Kowalczyk analyses of four main factors have been included: age, race, gender, and socioeconomic background. Since the main goal is to determine the affect of time on society, the first hypothesis is that younger generations would exhibit a more limited knowledge of such terms and would feel much more uncomfortable in even writing these words, much less using them verbally. The effect of socioeconomic class was also evaluated, with the hypothesis that more affluent persons, or those with higher education, would have a smaller derogatory epithetic vocabulary. A similar corollary was examined from the point of view of subjects place of origin/birth with a focus on whether these derogatory terms are more prevalent in particular areas of the country. The final factor, racial

demographics, was also analyzed under the presupposition that individuals of a particular racial or ethnic background would be more cognizant of particular slurs used as dysphemisms for their own demographic group. The logical extension of these results is to analyze the place of such language, its prevalence, and whether its use is declining among the younger populations, certain ethnic groups, and other demographics. While the knowledge of such terms by no means implicates their use by an individual, there is a strong connection between this lexical knowledge and the frequency of its use within society as a whole. A brief indication of each respondents comfort level at completing the survey was also taken in order to qualify the results though education levels accounted for the greatest disparity in this question. Age categories were assessed as being aged younger than 25, ages 26 to 45, and those older than forty-five. No surveys were conducted on persons younger than 18 or on those over 65, and where individuals refused to acknowledge their age, estimates had to

Kowalczyk

be made. Among those in the most mature category, the number of slurs recalled ranged from eight to 25, with an average of 18. This contrasts highly with the average of ten from the 18 to 25 year old category, confirming the hypothesis that age plays a role in ones vocabulary. The middle group responded with an average of 14, placing it within the other two groups for number of terms. Although those in the older categories could be predisposed to having larger vocabularies in general, the level of comfort for these groups seems to confirm the results with respect to ethnophaulisms. The older group responded as being more comfortable (or at least neutral) in completing the survey and writing the terms than the younger group at almost three to one. Whether this comfort also is a result of maturity cannot be determined in the scope of this study. However, in several cases involving the youngest category, those being surveyed vehemently opposed even completing it without further entreaties, while this occurred only once in the oldest population. Especially significant were the results among respondents from differing ethnic or racial backgrounds. Those of African-American descent overwhelmingly wrote terms that typically denote members of their racial group. In some cases, the prevalence of these words completely precluded slurs toward any other group at all. The logical conclusion is that members of this and perhaps other racial groups are more cognizant of these terms and thus more likely to recall them when questioned. There was also a direct correlation between race and the number of terms given. Those of African-American descent tended to respond with a slightly higher number of terms than did Caucasian counterparts within a similar age range, though again this may reflect a cultural awareness of such terms. Mullen and Smyth corroborate such a propensity, there is a

Kowalczyk significant tendency for smaller groups to be more likely to use words indicating self

focused attention (343). Their own work on the relevance of ethnophaulisms as a direct predictor of suicide further lends credence to the damage such terms can cause. Their conclusion is that the number and frequency of ethnophaulisms in the society in which the minority group lives often accurately predict suicide rates of that group (345-348). The inclusion of African-American ethnophaulisms in this survey was indicative of the overall trend among all those surveyed. Among both the Caucasians and AfricanAmericans surveyed, the greatest number of racial slurs tended to be those used historically to denote persons of African-American descent. This becomes particularly significant when analyzed from a sociolinguistic standpoint as shown later. Caucasians did tend toward slurs that are more diverse. For example, ethnic terms, such as wetback and wop, were predominantly Caucasian responses while the African-American respondents tended strictly toward more racial terms based on skin color. Due to the lack of significant racial diversity within the survey area, the widespread survey of other ethnic groups such as Asians was not possible. Interviewing significant numbers of Hispanics was also not feasible for this study, and as a result, the term Caucasian is used here to denote only speakers of European descent. Gender related terms likewise showed a measure of unbalance. Females surveyed overwhelmingly included some gender related term such as slut or whore. This predisposition parallels that of the African-American population in its predilection for recalling terms historically relevant to itself. Other groups, such as the Caucasian population with a southern heritage did not seem to make the same connection to terms like cracker or redneck. One may thus infer that the connection between some groups

Kowalczyk and their respective epithets is not as pronounced. As a gender comparison, no derogatory terms aimed solely toward men were noted by any respondent, though this may simply reflect the historical lack of such terms in the American lexicon. Although this historical bias could be an extension of the dominant role of men in the formation of language, postulating the origin of this bias based solely on this research would be pure conjecture. In addition, the existence of homosexual slurs was evident, but by no means predominant within a particular demographic. It should be noted that the sexual

orientation of respondents was not included as part of the survey, though this information may also have proved relevant. The aspects of gender were also taken into account with relevance to other factors such as race. Caucasian men responded at higher rates than Caucasian women did, though no such bias was evident among African-Americans. Women in higher income brackets tended to respond less as than men at the same level did, possibly reflecting the social consciousness often associated with women at higher incomes. Socioeconomic background, and as an extension, education, was the last demographic aspect analyzed. Socioeconomic groups were categorized as having annual incomes of less than $20,000, from $20,000 to $40,000, and $40,000 to $80,000. No persons having incomes over $80,000 were identifiable in the survey. Students surveyed were asked to identify with their parents income level rather than their own as this better reflects their own status. Among those in the top bracket, most were also members of the oldest age range, with only four exceptions. The effect of socioeconomic status quantifiably had the least relevance toward recollection of ethnophaulisms. The position of respondents within other demographic categories reflected far more importantly in

Kowalczyk

their responses. This is evidenced by the similarity of responses between someone with a high-income bracket compared to a respondent from the lowest bracket, with all other factors being discounted. Only in conjunction with other demographic factors can an adequate representation be made. Having addressed demographic categories individually, it is now possible to discuss categories where characteristics overlap. For example, African-Americans surveyed tended to respond in a similar manner regardless of their economic status, but only with respect to their age. To elaborate, a young African-American male aged 21, gave 10 responses, while a man of the same racial heritage aged 47, responded with 19 terms, noting that their socioeconomic status was equal. As mentioned above, the educational levels of some respondents played a significant role in the number of responses, although this was not true of every group. Caucasians from lower educational backgrounds, both their own and their parents, tended to give higher rates of response, sometimes as much as fifty percent more. This trend was insignificant among African-Americans, however, where education evidently contributed little one way or the other. Other significant findings beyond the direct scope of the survey include personal observations about those being surveyed. A respondents place of origin within the country tended to alter the ethnophaulisms given in some cases. This seemed highly relevant to those from large urban regions such as the North East U.S. Persons from these areas of greater ethnic and racial diversity tended to include more varied terms including those for Jews and Europeans, while these terms did not appear predominantly in those from the south or from less populated areas. The prevalence of small town

Kowalczyk

Southerners within the surveyed area precludes significant assumptions from being made without further study and investigation. It would be inappropriate to presume that the evidence mentioned here regarding areas of origin is conclusive. Some correlation was also noticed between individuals with a recent military background, who tended toward inclusion of Arabic and Muslim slurs. This feature, while interesting to note, was outside the scope of the survey and is mentioned here only anecdotally. In summarizing the responses given, the dominant factor is that of age, followed by ethnicity of those surveyed, with gender and socioeconomic background playing minor roles within these two larger groups. Younger persons surveyed gave a smaller number of average responses, while African-Americans as a whole provided more terms than Caucasians, all other factors being equal. As previously mentioned, there is also a close correlation between ones own cultural identity and ones knowledge of terms historically associated with that identity. For example, women tend to respond with higher percentages of terms derogatory to women, and African-Americans responded with typically derogatory terms for that racial group. This association reflects the cultural awareness of such groups and their attentiveness to the use of these terms in everyday communication. The synthesis of this raw information into useable sociolinguistic knowledge can be made by building on other previous work. Sociologist Erdman Palmore notes, There is a close correlation between the amount of prejudice against an out-group and the number of ethnophaulisms for it.(442) His contention is that the greater the prevalence of terminology for a particular group, the greater their likelihood of discrimination against them. Significant in dealing with this survey are the implications to racism and

Kowalczyk discrimination in the face of the surveys results. If the trend in vocabulary use is in reality a decline of the use of ethnophaulisms, then the related decline in prejudice can

also be envisioned. The social implications of such a statement are obvious though this is certainly not the first instance of this phenomenons manifestation. The entire politically correct movement is directly related to this premise. As apparent from the results of the survey, the knowledge of racial epithets is diminished in the younger generations. This is in comparison to those who have lived in a time in history when the use of racial or ethnic slurs was more common and acceptable. The older generation categorized in the survey represents a population that, through media, allowed for greater exposure to these words and phrases. The quintessential expression of this is the television show All in the Family, which made constant references to minorities with words like coloreds and spics and your spades (IMDB). The current taboo against such words in prime time network television is reflected in the culture that views it. Since most young people do not have the exposure to these derogatory terms on a regular basis through media, their knowledge of them is limited in comparison. The advent of similar characters still occurs, though their position is often more blatant satire, for example, the notoriously racist Eric Cartman on Comedy Centrals South Park. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have actually admitted to basing this character on the model of Archie Bunker in an effort to lampoon a typical racist (Stone, et al). It is actually quite likely that the results of this survey can be seen as evidence that the effect of politically correct thought is in fact the minimizing of prejudiced speech. Specifically, if there are less ethnophaulisms for a particular group then, at least

Kowalczyk 10 according to Palmore, there is less of the related prejudice in existence as well, which speaks volumes abut the nature of the social progress at work in America. The final significant aspect of this survey is it addition to the overall understanding of sociolinguistic patterns within Americans. Moreover, as previously noted, there is no direct correlation between knowledge of a word and its use; the elements of ones background do play a role in one recognition and recollection of those terms. In this way, it is possible to further assess the differences in cultures, not merely between racial differences, but also gender and socioeconomic differences. If the words we are familiar with are a reflection of some aspect of our own cultures, then perhaps it is worthwhile to recognize those differences between cultures. The dialogue and cultural understanding that has resulted in these linguistic trends must be allowed to continue to further the progress toward understanding each other across all the various demographic boundaries.

Kowalczyk 11 Works Cited

IMDB. All in the Family Internet Movie Database. April 2008 <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066626/> Li, Wen; Yu, Linda. Interpersonal Contact and Racial Prejudice: a Comparative Study of American and Chinese Students The Sociological Quarterly 15(4) pp559-566 Blackwell Publishing 1974 Mullen, Bryan; Smyth, Joshua. Immigrant suicide rates as a function of ethnophaulisms: Hate speech predicts death Psychosomatic Medicine. 66: 343-348 American Psychosomatic Society. 2004 Palmore, Erdman. Ethnophaulisms and Ethnocentrism The American Journal of Sociology 67(4) pp442-445 University of Chicago Press Jan 1962 Pederson, Lee. Lexical Data from the Gulf States American Speech 55(3) pp195-203 Duke University Press Autumn 1980 Stone, M., Parker, T., Divney, L. Interview Speaking Freely PBS. Aspen, Colorado. March 1, 2002. transcript available: <http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/about.aspx?id=12881>