Language & Stereotypes

   Language is perceived the way it is due to a combination of many factors. While the words may be spelled one way on paper, they are often spoken differently, and to another speaker, they may sound completely different. The way a language is spoken contributes to English speakers’ stereotypes  about speakers of that language.

   One example of this is Arabic. The Arabic language has many "velar" and "uvular" sounds that English doesn't have. An example of a velar sound is the final sound in the word "loch". To make that sound, one has to make a "k" sound, but in the back of the throat. An Arabic example of this is the word "خضراء” (“xaḍrāʾ”), which means “green”.

Velar and uvular sounds can sound harsh to people who don’t speak Arabic. The non-Arabic speaking wife of an Arabic speaker notes that, “When I listen to my husband and his friends speak most of the time I assume there is something wrong or they are disagreeing with something [...] the words to me seem harsh and very pronounced.” As noted in the quote, these sounds contribute to stereotypes about Arabic - namely, the stereotype that Arabic people are “aggressive”, as velar sounds often sound harsh and abrasive to English speakers.

   Another example  is Chinese. The Chinese languages, especially Mandarin Chinese, are some of the most stereotyped languages in the world. Chinese has six variants of a single sound, “t͡ɕ”, which is similar to “t͡ʃ”, a sound that English speakers spell "ch". This, combined with their common use of the "ng" sound, help create the most common stereotype of Chinese: "ching chong". A rhyme that was common in the early twentieth century plays off of this:

Ching Chong, Chinaman,
Sitting on a wall.
Along came a white man,
And chopped his tail off.

While incredibly racist, this rhyme shows how the sound of the language can contribute to stereotypes- not just the “ching chong” stereotype, but the idea that Chinese people are “outsiders” who don’t belong. This mindset is much less of a problem in languages that share many sounds with English, such as Dutch and German.

A third example of this is French. The French stereotype is very popular in America, especially the stereotype that “ze Fhhrench speak like zees” and laugh nasally like “hon hon hon”. These stereotypes stem from French phonology, where r’s are trilled (/ʁ/), some vowels are nasal (/ɑ̃/), there’s no “th” sound, and there’s no /ɪ/ (like in English “bin”). This is often made fun of, as the nasal vowels in French can seem almost “uppity” to some English listeners. According to the site TV Tropes, these stereotypes are common in television, with a few famous examples being “Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther, Lumière in Beauty and the Beast, all the French characters in 'Allo 'Allo!, and Pepe Le Pew.” In addition, these stereotypes can also make French people seem goofy, as shown by the fact that many characters in entertainment have stereotypical French accents for no apparent reason. One example is in the movie Shrek, where Robin Hood speaks English with a French accent for no reason other than to generate laughs.

In conclusion, one can deduce that the way a language sounds can affect stereotypes of speakers of that language. Some sounds can seem agressive, like Arabic /x/. Some sounds can seem otherly, like Chinese /t͡ɕ/. Other sounds can even sound goofy, like French /ɑ̃/. The cooperation of these sounds with other sounds from their languages can give the languages a personality that is projected onto speakers of that language.

Works Cited

"How Does Arabic Sound to Foreigners?" How Does Arabic Sound to Foreigners? EgyptSearch, 23 July 2004. Web. 18 Sept. 2014.

Newman, D. The Phonetics of Arabic (n.d.): n. pag. Durham University Community. Durham University. Web. 18 Sept. 2014.

Duanmu, San. "Chinese (Mandarin), Phonology of." Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics,. 2nd ed. N.p.: Elsevier House, n.d. Print.

Lee, Mary Paik, and Sucheng Chan. Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America. Seattle: U of Washington, 1990. Print.

"National Stereo Types: Western Europe." TV Tropes. TV Tropes Foundation, LLC, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

Elkhoury, John. "French Phonetics." French Crazy. N.p., 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.

Comments (4)

Nebil Ibrahim (Student 2016)
Nebil Ibrahim

I found that I agree with many things in this paper and you proved your point well. Many of the symbols to represent sounds and pronunciation confused me though.

A counter argument would be that the culture of people who are from a region contribute much more than language.

Alexander Wroblewski (Student 2016)
Alexander Wroblewski

Being bilingual since childhood as a native Polish speaker I can relate to what you are saying. Polish has a rather different tone than english, and I most definitely make completely different sounds when I speak each language. While the Polish language isn't stereotyped often, I also do speak some russian and am familiar with the stereotyping involved. I can completely agree with this, and I believe that the stereotyping is a result of the need to understand, or to have a projection of the "enemy", going back to a tribal mindset.

Myrna Yousuf (Student 2016)
Myrna Yousuf

I agree with this that hearing languages may sound differently to everyone. I knwo from personal experience that I've heard these same things that was mentioned about how Chinese, Arabic, and French sound to others. I also experienced this myself because I speak another language so others confuse what I am saying to sound as if I'm speaking in a different tone. I think this does bring up an issue about stereotyping people of different races with the way they speak also.