In Britain, it could be Geordies or people from the North and the Midlands in general. If you’re German, it could be Bavarians. If you’re American, it could be people from the Midwest, South, or Appalachia, or if you’re from a place like Ohio it can even indicate what part of the state you’re from. Naturally, we’re talking about language, but this is more about the difference in language.
Essentially mirroring the plot from the musical My Fair Lady, the way we talk says a lot about who we are, where we’re from, and what we are. Outside of entertainment, however, this sort of linguistic discrimination can and has proven to be detrimental to the speaker.
First coined in a 2008 academic paper, entitled La “mauvaise langue” des “ghettos linguistiques” : la glottophobie française, une xénophobie qui s’ignore (The “bad language” of the “linguistic ghettos”: French glottophobia, a xenophobia that is ignored) by French sociolinguists Arditty Jo and Philippe Blanchet, the French term glottophobie (or glottophobia in English) is defined as: “Contempt, hatred, aggression and therefore overall rejection, of people, actually or allegedly based on the fact of considering certain linguistic forms (perceived as languages, dialects or uses of languages) incorrect, inferior, bad; used by these people, generally focusing on linguistic forms and without always being fully aware of the extent of the effects produced on people”. Classified by the authors as a form of alterophobia, which is a “contempt, hatred, aggression, rejection of people according to their otherness – or ‘difference’”, glottophobia seeks to include language as a factor of discrimination.
Glottophobia uses the word-forming element from the Ancient Greek phobos, meaning ‘fear, panic fear, terror, outward show of fear; object of fear or terror’; however, since the proper term glossephobia – fear of public speaking (literally ‘fear of tongue’) – already exists, the authors utilized an alternate form of glosso-, glotto-, though the understanding of a derisive implication towards someone for the way that they speak is still well understood.
Being created less than a decade earlier, our term was initially thrust into the national spotlight thanks to politics and media coverage. During the tumultuous 2017 French presidential election, a video featuring leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon mocking a journalist from southwestern France by mimicking her accent then turning to an assembled crowd and asking: “Has anyone got a question in more or less comprehensible French?”, went viral. Fallout from this incident brought the issue of linguistic discrimination to French lawmakers the following year, culminating in National Assembly member Laetitia Avia proposing a law that would include linguistic discrimination among other forms of discrimination, posting on October 18, 2018 on her Twitter account: “Do you speak poorer French if you have an accent? Do people have to endure humiliation if their pronunciation is not of the standardised kind?”
Though the proposed law was tabled, the issue does still raise many valid questions. For example, when and what specific accents can or should be allowed to be proven detrimental? At what point can accent – and accent alone – be proven as a means of discrimination? Finally, how can we guard against this? As we all have experienced, command of a language can be liberating, but, if we allow it to be, it can also be confining.