Project aims and findings

Initial Aims

It is our view that previous initiatives to combat linguistic prejudice have failed due to an underestimation of the widespread and ingrained nature of linguistic prejudices, the lack of a well-defined strategy to combat these prejudices and a reliance on challenging them via pure statement in which it is hoped that the public will appreciate the expert knowledge of linguists about language

Our view is that one viable route to combat linguistic prejudice and discrimination is via knowledge and understanding of why and how the different varieties of Portuguese, including the standard, evolved in Brazil. The aim is to explain such changes with reference to (a) general linguistic trends related to shared human cognitive and linguistic abilities and observable in other Indo-European languages and (b) (when appropriate and relevant) to socio-historical factors (see Faraco 2017).  Knowledge of the origin of different spoken varieties of Brazilian Portuguese  and how they evolved, in contrast to the evolution of the Brazilian standard, and in contrast to the evolution of the standards in other prestigious European languages, can help people understand that certain features present in the Portuguese spoken in Brazil are not inherently bad but merely different and such features are shared by many different international and prestigious languages. Language, like race, religion, sexuality or even haircut style, is a human variable. Variables are sensitive to being associated with some type of social meaning or stereotyping, independently of any inherent or intrinsic qualities of the variable.

The specific questions that our research seeks to address are:

  • What are the features of spoken Brazilian-Portuguese which are most discriminated against?
  • How can recent developments in understanding language change and variation combat this?
  • How can linguists engage with policy makers and non-academic partners to disseminate their research and have a lasting impact on matters of linguistic prejudice, especially within education?

Research Findings

The major research finding of the project was an understanding of the problematic nature of our initial hypothesis: that a valid way to combat linguistic prejudice in Brazil is via knowledge and understanding of how the different varieties of Portuguese, including the standard, evolved in Brazil. The hope, as explained above, was that an understanding of the origin of non-standard features of popular Brazilian would help people to realise that such features were not inherently bad but merely different and such features were shared by many different international and prestigious languages. Thus, people could realise that there is no inherent correlation between linguistic features and physical and mental traits. 

 This hypothesis however was underpinned by the assumption that social change can be achieved when researchers share their knowledge with the public, policymakers and other institutions and correct ‘incorrect’ beliefs. This ‘principle of error correction’, which has been widespread in linguistics since work by Labov in the 1980’s, has recently come under scrutiny and has been argued as being naïve and ineffectual since the focus is on changing beliefs of individuals but not analysing the political, historical and social factors which sustain and reinforce such beliefs and the material structures which endorse and promote them.  Indeed, in the course of our research we became increasingly convinced that people’s views about speech cannot entirely be disentangled from their views about other social variables. Therefore, a strategy to combat linguistic prejudice and discrimination based on a theory of error correction alone will not suffice, since linguistic prejudice is often not about a particular linguistic feature at all but can merely act as a proxy for other types of prejudice.

This does not mean that there are no benefits to the principle of error correction and that linguists have no role to play in combating linguistic prejudice. However, the knowledge and efforts of linguists need to be applied strategically to the places in which they can have maximal effect. Importantly, we suggested that linguists need to have a much deeper understanding of and engagement with the, at time irrational, values attached to linguistic forms, instead of dismissing them as incorrect beliefs. There also needs to be an increased engagement with researchers working in the social sciences – since in Brazil, at least, the problem of linguistic prejudice is deeply related to the historical and sociopolitical contexts which can disadvantage and even vilify the poor. 

The concrete result of our research is an article published in the Journal of Language and Discrimination 3. (print) ISSN 2397–2637; (online) ISSN 2397–2645 entitled ‘Linguistic prejudice and discrimination in Brazilian Portuguese and beyond: suggestions and recommendations’

The full reference is O’Neill, P & Massini-Cagliari, G (2019) Linguistic prejudice and discrimination in Brazilian Portuguese and beyond: suggestions and recommendations. Journal of Language and Discrimination 3. 

The article will be available to download free on the journal’s website.   

Here is a copy of our accepted version.