Language prejudice and the documentation of minoritized varieties of English

Language prejudice and the documentation of minoritized varieties of English

The following blog post is a summary of the OED’s recent panel discussion, by panellist Dr Jeanette Allsopp. You can find the recording of this event on the OED’s webinars and events page.


This OED webinar was briefly introduced by Simone Bichara-Desecki, Community Manager for the Oxford Marketing team. It began with a brief overview by Dr Danica Salazar, World English Editor for Oxford Languages, of the OED’s new Varieties of English pages, which is a space in the OED website which serves as a hub for the content and resources related to varieties of English on the OED, and provide information on the contributions made by the dictionary’s extensive network of consultants and partner institutions across the globe.

The members of the panel were individually introduced by Dr Salazar, who served as the moderator. The six members of the panel were Dr Catherine Sangster, Head of the Oxford Languages Pronunciation team; Dr Jeannette Allsopp, retired Senior Research Fellow, Richard and Jeannette Allsopp Centre for Caribbean Lexicography, UWI Cave Hill Campus, Barbados; Dr Rosemary Hall, Research Assistant, The Dialect and Language Project, University of Leeds; Dr Kingsley Ugwuanyi, English Lecturer and Researcher, University of Nigeria; and Kelly Elizabeth Wright, PhD Candidate in Experimental Sociolinguistics, University of Michigan.

Dr Salazar also highlighted the key words in the title of the topic of the discussion: language prejudice, documentation, and minoritized varieties.  In the case of minoritized varieties, the point was specifically made that minoritized varieties of a language are to be differentiated from minority varieties. Minority varieties are those which have a limited number of speakers, while minoritized varieties are usually spoken by quite a large number of people, but for various reasons are marginalized.

The Panel Discussion

The discussion centred around eight major questions that were raised by the moderator, Dr Salazar.  The first was language prejudice and comments were solicited of the panellists on their knowledge and experience of this issue as well as on their study of it.

The consensus was that most of the panellists had experienced some form of language prejudice, especially Dr Salazar herself, on waiting to enter the United Kingdom from the Philippines in order to work with the OED, as well as Dr Ugwuanyi who was also trying to enter either the United States and the UK in order to pursue his PhD, but who experienced the same kind of language prejudice as Dr Salazar. The issue they faced was whether their English was good enough to work with the OED in the UK or enter a PhD programme in the US or the UK.  The other members of the panel were well aware of language prejudice, even if they themselves had not actually experienced it and everyone was working on it.  However, it was generally agreed that whether they were aware of it or not, every human being is affected by language prejudice because of the nature of society which ascribes roles to its members based on race, class, power, and even religion.

This topic was linked to two later questions raised in the discussion, namely accent and dialect parody.  The examples were given by Dr Rosemary Hall of Bermuda where white people make fun of the accents of their black employees, or of their black counterparts, and as Dr Catherine Sangster pointed out, also through stand-up comedy.  The panel agreed that, generally, it was not so much the language that was being mocked or made fun of, but the speakers of the language. Non-standard speakers are usually regarded as belonging to the lower echelons of the society, and as being unintelligent, or maybe even caught in the grip of alcohol abuse.

This point is relevant to one made later in the discussion by Dr Jeannette Allsopp, the OED consultant for Caribbean English, about Caribbean Creoles and dialects being stigmatized by the white ruling classes. She stated that although demographically in the majority, the Caribbean Creole and dialect speakers were at the bottom of the social scale, having been slaves.  Therefore, instead of being appreciated for their creativity in forging new languages out of the contact of West African and European languages, they were instead despised for doing so, along with the language varieties that they spoke and indeed, still speak. 

This observation ties in with Kelly Elizabeth Wright’s comments that as the world has developed, producing nationalism and the enactment of laws, as well as national identity, linguistic stereotypes of those who are in control of society have also resulted, and the people who have been in control have been mostly wealthy, white, Christian men, producing a standard language born of racism and oppression, which the world does not really need. She referred to the deep emotion expressed by an African American lady who, when she saw the word finna in the OED, burst into tears at just seeing it there and knowing that her language was actually being codified in the dictionary. Kelly stressed that it is very important to communities who speak African American English (AAE) to see their language represented in a dictionary.

The next question raised was one directly related to the degree to which the predominance of Standard British English influences the teaching of English in Nigeria, and how it has impacted Nigerian perception and ownership of Nigerian English. 

Dr Kingsley Ugwuanyi, the OED consultant in this area, expressed the opinion that the pedagogical model for English teaching is still outward looking, because Nigerian students are still expected to produce British pronunciation models of English in examinations, even though Nigerians speak Nigerian English and are taught by Nigerian teachers.  Despite the fact that in 2010 a phonological model of Nigerian English was published, there was still tension between local norms and Standard British English norms in relation to pronunciation. Dr Ugwuanyi referred to the fact that examiners in English in West Africa are forced by the syllabi that their students have to follow to read British Standard English. So when it comes to the fact that 29 Nigerian English words have actually been included in the OED, Dr Ugwuanyi, when asked if he felt that Nigerian students should be encouraged to write Nigerian English, urged that that the students proceed with caution, referring to the prejudice that still exists towards local varieties as well as to the prestige of the OED, in that many English teachers do rely heavily on dictionaries.

The final part of the discussion was focused on the particular challenges that arise when creating a dictionary of a minoritized variety of English, the importance of documenting the lexicon of minoritized varieties of English, and what we can do to fight language prejudice.

At this point, Dr Allsopp gave a summary of how the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage  (DCEU) came about, arising from Richard Allsopp’s experience as a student of French in the UK and France, because his Caribbean English rendering of the sentence, ‘the rain had stopped’ as ‘the rain had held up’ brought stinging criticism from teachers and students from both sides of the Atlantic.  His response to that experience was to record Guyanese English usage by documenting it on cards, and the extension of that work resulted in the DCEU, once he had joined the UWI Cave Hill Campus.

Dr Allsopp also commented on the opposition to the work by fellow Caribbean English-speaking people, aspects of its compilation, particularly in relation to the nature of an entry and what that involves, the prescriptivism of the DCEU versus its descriptivism.  She elaborated on its impact on education, which she spearheaded, producing degree courses and programmes in lexicography from undergraduate to PhD level at the Cave Hill Campus. Dr Allsopp further stated that the overall impact of the DCEU has not been as significant as either of its compilers would have liked and she elaborated on her continuing efforts to make it a true educational tool by simplifying it, for example, by taking out the 20 superscripts of the vowel /a/ at the beginning, and also some of its complex linguistic terminology and creating a school edition of the DCEU, now being published at the University of the West Indies Press in Jamaica.

The panel ended the discussion by pointing out that minoritized varieties need to be documented in dictionaries, so that the entire story of English, which now boasts 1.75 billion speakers, will be told. As Dr Hall pointed out, emphasizing the fact that there is a fear of a communication crisis which is extremely insulting to world speakers who are both multilingual and multidialectal, as Dr Salazar had previously stated, when she referred to the practice of code-switching, whether from one language to another, or one dialect to another.  It was also stated that with the rise of the internet and social media in general, there is far more source material than existed before, and on social media, it is even given exact dates, which reflects the practice of the OED.  Dr Sangster also pointed out that the amount of variation existing in varieties has resulted in her pronunciation team developing broad pronunciation models which are phonemic and are also presented in audio form with different speakers actually giving their individual versions of the transcription.

Final recommendations by the panel on how to fight language prejudice

  1. Every variety is worthy enough and should be allowed to exist and this can come about by education of the general public on the nature of language, as well as by specific policy-making on the part of educational authorities.
  2. The production of dictionaries is the way to learn about one’s language, how it has come about, and how it develops our linguistic and cultural identity and helps us to understand our heritage.
  3. There should be greater enlightenment on the use and processing of language.
  4. The documentation of varieties of English is still being researched and worked on and this should continue.
  5. An appreciation on the part of the society in general of diversity in language should be fostered and encouraged.

The Oxford World English Symposium 2022

At the end of the session, Dr Salazar made the official public announcement of the Oxford World English Symposium, a two-day virtual event that will bring together Oxford University Press’ dictionary teams with academic researchers, teachers, lexicographers, writers, and other language practitioners to share research findings, experiences, and insights on World Englishes, and discuss innovative approaches to the creation of dictionaries and other lexical resources that will best serve the needs of all English speakers. The Symposium will be held online from 12 to 13 April 2022.

The first day of the Symposium will be devoted to talks from different experts on various aspects of World Englishes, while the second day will consist of four live panel discussions focused on the topics ‘Dictionaries and the decolonization of English’; ‘Language corpora and research resources’; ‘Dictionaries, World Englishes, and ELT’; and ‘Spectrum of variation in English’.

Everyone is welcome to attend. For more information on the Oxford World English Symposium and its speakers, and to register for free, please visit this page.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.