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How You Say It

Why You Talk the Way You Do – and What It Says About You

By Katherine D. Kinzler
13-minute read
Audio available
How You Say It by Katherine D. Kinzler

How You Say It (2020) examines the role that speech plays in structuring society. Through research and intelligent analysis, it shows how our accents, word choices, and other linguistic quirks become part of our identity and change how we see others.

  • Social scientists wanting to learn more about language
  • Big talkers curious about the hidden meaning of their accents
  • Anyone interested in unpacking their unconscious biases

Katherine D. Kinzler is professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, specializing in the relationship between language and socialization. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Quartz, and numerous academic journals.

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How You Say It

Why You Talk the Way You Do – and What It Says About You

By Katherine D. Kinzler
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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How You Say It by Katherine D. Kinzler
Synopsis

How You Say It (2020) examines the role that speech plays in structuring society. Through research and intelligent analysis, it shows how our accents, word choices, and other linguistic quirks become part of our identity and change how we see others.

Key idea 1 of 8

The way we speak is shaped by subtle social forces.

Documentary filmmaker David Thorpe grew up deep in the heart of Bible Belt Texas. As a child, he was taught that homosexuality was a sin, so it took until college for him to come out as gay. This new sexual identity shocked his friends and family. But, they also noticed another change.

After coming out, David spoke differently. His s’s were sharper and his vowels were longer. There was a lilt to his sentences. He had, in his own view, begun to “sound gay.” But, why? After all, coming out didn’t physically alter his vocal cords.

Yet, the change happened just as it did for many other gay men. That’s because the way we speak isn’t always down to biology. In fact, our vocal inflections are more than just sounds, they’re part of our identity.

The key message here is: The way we speak is shaped by subtle social forces.

Humans naturally divide society into different social groups. We categorize each other by nationality, race, religion, sex, even by which sports team we support. Some of these qualities have huge social significance while others are more trivial. One category which is extremely important, but often overlooked, is something called linguistic groupings. That is, our different styles of speaking.

The way we speak has a serious influence on our social lives. Of course, we tend to socialize with people who share the same language. But, it goes deeper. We also favor others with the same accent, inflection, or tone in their speech. And, when we join a social group, we often alter our way of talking to fit in.

Throughout the 1980s, sociolinguist Penelope Eckert studied this phenomenon. She found that teenagers changed their pronunciation according to their social group. At one high school, she identified two social categories: jocks and burnouts. While each group came from the same background they nonetheless had different ways of speaking. Jocks would pronounce the meal we have at midday as lunch while burnouts would say it more like launch.

These divisions appear across time as well. In the 1990s, American teens adopted upspeak, the typical Valley girl style in which every statement sounds like a question. Today, young people are more likely to have vocal fry, a low-pitched, gravely tone. In each case, older generations tend to look down on these speech patterns as annoying or unprofessional. But this habit just reflects people’s unconscious bias towards their own social groups.

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