February 2, 2006
Posted online March 15, 2006
Linguistic profiling: The sound of your
voice may determine if you get that apartment or
By Patricia Rice
Many Americans can guess a caller's ethnic background from
their first hello on the telephone.
However, the inventor of the term "linguistic
profiling" has found in a current study that when a voice
sounds African-American or Mexican-American, racial
discrimination may follow.
John Baugh, Ph.D., the inventor of the term "linguistic
profiling," says that when a voice on the phone sounds
African-American or Mexican-American, racial discrimination might
In studying this phenomenon through hundreds of test phone
calls, John Baugh, Ph.D., the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor and
director of African and African American Studies in Arts &
Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has found that
many people made racist, snap judgments about callers with
Some potential employers, real estate agents, loan officers
and service providers did it repeatedly, says Baugh. Long before
they could evaluate callers' abilities, accomplishments,
credit rating, work ethic or good works, they blocked callers
based solely on linguistics.
Such racist reactions frequently break federal and state fair
housing and equal employment opportunity laws.
In the first two years of his linguistic profiling study,
Baugh has found that this kind of profiling is a skill that too
often is used to discriminate and diminish the caller's
chance at the American dream of a house or equal opportunity in
the job market. Baugh's study is backed by a three-year
$500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.
Racist telephone tactics
While Baugh coined the term linguistic profiling, many who
suffer from twisted stereotypes about dialect have known for
decades about the racist tactic. His mother knew and took
protective action. When he was a youngster in Philadelphia, he
could tell if she were talking to a white person or a black
person on the telephone.
His study shows that some companies screen calls on answering
machines and don't return calls of those whose voices seem to
identify them as black or Latino.
Some companies instruct their phone clerks to brush aside any
chance of a face-to-face appointment to view a sales property or
interview for a job based on the sound of a caller's voice.
Other employees routinely write their guess about a caller's
race on company phone message slips.
Such discrimination occurs across America, says Baugh, who is
also a professor of psychology and holds appointments in the
departments of Anthropology, Education and English, all in Arts
If the availability of an advertised job or an apartment is
denied at a face-to-face meeting with a person of color,
employers and renters know that they can be accused of racism.
However, when accused of racist and unfair tactics over the
phone, many companies have played dumb about racial linguistic
Had you from 'hello'
Baugh has found racist responses in hundreds of calls. He
tests ads with a series of three calls. First someone speaking
with an African-American dialect responds to an ad. Then, a
researcher with a Mexican-style Spanish-English dialect calls.
Finally, a third caller uses what most people regard as Standard
Many times researchers found that the person using the ethnic
dialect got no return calls. If they did reach the company,
frequently they were told that what was advertised was no longer
available, though it was still available to the Standard English
In no test calls did researchers offer company employees
information about the callers' credit rating, educational
background, job history or other qualifications.
"Those who sound white get the appointment," Baugh
Lack of response or refusal to offer face-to-face appointments
was higher for Latinos than for African-Americans, Baugh
When challenged in lawsuits, many businesses deny that they
can determine race or ethnicity over the phone. However,
Baugh's ongoing study shows that over the phone many
Americans are able to accurately guess the age, race, sex,
ethnicity, region of heritage and other social demographics based
on a few sentences, even just a hello.
Baugh has prepared to be an expert witness in several court
cases but so far all have been settled out of court.
Celebrating all dialects
Recognizing heritage in a voice does not make a person a
racist, Baugh says.
In October 2002 on MSNBC, Baugh debated the late Johnnie
Cochran, then one of the nation's best-known defense
attorneys, about dialect recognition. In the O.J. Simpson case,
Cochran had argued that speculation about a speaker's race
based on hearing a person's voice was inherently racist.
Such recognition is often made by many intelligent listeners.
Millions of Americans speak with the lilting cadences of their
"I celebrate all dialects," Baugh says.
So do musicians, playwrights, storytellers, historians and
actors. He and many other academic linguists have coached actors
and actresses in preparing for roles that require the special
tang of non-standard English accents.
Many professional speakers, especially those in broadcast, who
learned to speak in South Boston, the Louisiana bayous,
Minnesota's Scandinavian-American crossroads, Los Angeles
barrios, Native American reservations or Scotch-Irish Appalachian
towns, have stripped their family's cadences from their
They scrub down colorful, historic expressions that sometimes
are shards of a second language their family once spoke, says
Instead, these public speakers aim to speak General American
English — what most Americans consider Standard American
Baugh's research shows that not all accents get a neutral
or negative reaction from the American public. He has found that
many Americans consider people with a British upper-class accent
to be more cultured or intelligent than those who used General
American. Listeners' snap judgments about the culture behind
the British accent may reflect American's insecurity about
their own English, he says.
Speakers with German accents — even if they stumble into
grammatical errors — are considered brilliant, his research
has shown. The listeners may not even be able to name the accent
as German-American. Baugh expects that the brainy stereotype
comes from comics and cartoons mimicking Albert Einstein's
German-American accent and from a duck — Walt Disney's
Germanic scientist Ludwig Von Drake.
Tapping a vein
While Baugh coined the term linguistic profiling, there is
nothing new about the prejudice, as observing his mother's
phone conversations taught him. Even now it still is only a
sideline in his scholarship as the nation's foremost expert
on varied African-American English, also called Ebonics.
It was not until he was about 38, with a doctoral degree,
before he ever considered researching linguistic profiling. After
being appointed to the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavior at
Stanford University, he went shopping for a house for his family,
then living in Los Angeles.
He telephoned agents advertising houses. When he made those
calls he used what he calls his "professional" English.
Even George Bernard Shaw's fictitious linguist Henry Higgins
would not conclude that he is African-American using that
All agents seemed eager to show him houses for sale. When he
showed up, most welcomed him warmly, but four, surprised by his
race, told him the properties were no longer available.
"I could do a comedy routine about reactions and what
they didn't say."
No one ever told him, "Oh, we didn't know you were
black on the phone," but their eyes popped and the unsaid
remarks would be the core of his stand-up comic monologue, he
Beyond the comedy, he recognized a serious racist problem.
Instead of just wondering what would have happened if he
telephoned using an African-American dialect, he did an
experiment. He made a series of three telephone calls using both
styles of English and then a Mexican-American accent. The
Standard English voice got better treatment. He set out to do
"I tapped a vein," he says.
In a survey of his own accents, he had hundreds score his
disembodied voices and try to identify his background. In those
tests, 93 percent identified his "professional English
voice" as a white person; 86 percent thought the black
dialect as a black person; and 89 percent identified his Latino
voice as a Mexican.
He laughed about getting the least convincing score as a black
person. His vocal differences in those tests were only in
intonation, not in grammar.
Americans tempted to use their ear for linguistic profiling in
racist ways should remember two things, he says.
• They should realize that by an accident of birth they
have the privilege to speak Standard English.
• Standard English speakers, descended from non-English
immigrants, should show respect for their own ancestors who were
challenged to become fluent in English as their second language.
They should extend empathy with patience and tolerance to those
whose linguistic styles differ from their own use of the English
Descendents of African slaves were especially challenged,
Baugh notes. Their slave ancestors often were deprived of their
family's language from the time of their capture in
Slave traders systematically separated captives — in
holding pens, in ships and on these shores at auctions —
from others who shared the same language. Once sold, slaves were
often isolated from anyone who shared their language.
The varied linguistic traditions of black English —
Ebonics — evolved over generations when it was illegal to
teach African slaves to read or write and when many had limited
opportunities to hear native Standard English speakers.