Most of us have at some point been shocked to discover that a singer we thought was of one ethnicity was actually of another. This article isn’t as much about the shock as it is about the fact that most of us have done this.
This article also isn’t about shaming or guilt. That’s not to say whether or not it’s warranted, and that’s not to say it’s not a conversation we should have. This article, though, is intended to focus more on the manner in which it happens.
Stanford University’s John Baugh studies the perceived identification of ethnic speech characteristics in the workforce and employment arena. In his paper “Racial Identification by Speech”, published in American Speech, Baugh calls attention to the famed legal history of racial speech identification.
In 1995, he points out, racial identification by speech was the core of a major objection when Johnnie Cochran questioned the validity Christopher Darden’s witness’s ability to determine ethnicity from a phone call. Judge Lance Ito overruled the objection, essentially allowing that the witness’s opinion on the other telephone communicator could be considered.
Baugh also points out that in 1999 the Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled that it is valid for a witness to testify that an overheard voice sounds to them like it belongs to a person of a specific race. Justice William S. Cooper defended the ruling by analogizing it to the allowance of witnesses to identify voices by gender.
Whether or not we feel that these rulings should be legally valid, most linguists agree that many of us associate certain cadences, word choices, dialects, intonations, and tempos with specific ethnic groups and subgroups. Afterall, African-American Vernacular English, an academically recognized dialect of North American English, retains its label for a reason.
Anthropologically and sociologically speaking, it makes sense that nuanced speech characteristics would be common to social and regional groups…