A concept developed by Professor John Baugh, Linguistic Profiling is the ability to identify individuals’ social characteristics based on auditory cues. The social characteristics that are usually identifiable include gender, accent, region, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, etc. Simply put, most of us have the ability to know a lot about a person, to like them or to hate them, on the sole basis of hearing their voice.
Even though Linguistic Profiling often has a negative connotation, it is not actually such a bad thing to be able to detect an individual’s social characteristics based on auditory cues; when this ability is coupled with discrimination however, that is when it becomes questionable and could even be considered a crime in some countries. The following video best captures an instance of discriminatory practices in the housing market based on the detection of auditory cues.
This video captures a unique case, occurring in a unique setting, with a unique set of conventions, and a unique way of stratifying society based on accent. Does it mean that the United States is the only place where individuals get profiled on the basis of the auditory cues their voice yields? Of course not! Have you therefore ever wondered how this practice gets manifested in other milieux? Like in a completely multilingual country where several languages are concomitantly used for purposes of communication? Let us look at the case of Burkina Faso, a West African country, where about 65 languages are natively but unequally spoken, context dependent.
In Burkina Faso, generally speaking, the language you choose to communicate in different circumstances can already provide your audience with a sense of who you are. Differently put, certain languages are preferable than others depending on the context. For instance, Mòoré would be the appropriate language during a Mossi family reunion, if not all the members of the family can proficiently speak French. If a participant in that meeting decides, however, to switch to French, that will be perceived as an attempt to paint himself a face of someone of a different social status.
In an impromptu encounter, likewise, dialects also yield a great amount of information about the interlocutors involved. In reference to national languages in particular, the use of a given dialect could reveal the speaker’s region or even his village. Additionally, certain dialects are associated with certain stereotypes and users of a dialect are often held at the standards of those stereotypes, especially when not much information is known of them. For instance, speakers of the Yaadré dialect of Mòoré are known for their directness, which often is apprehended as aggressive or even rude.
Beyond the dialect, other variations can still yield more information about the user of a language. You can determine some facets of a speaker based on his proficiency in a given language. For example, a speaker who can use both formal and informal registers of French will come across as educated; a speaker who can only speak a formal register of French will not only come across as educated, but also as out of touch with the realities of the common Burkinabé; on the contrary, will be perceived as uneducated a speaker who can only use informal French.
Beside the proficiency trait, French is also spoken with a variety of accents in Burkina Faso depending on the speaker’s first language. That said, you could detect a speaker’s other language(s) based on their French accent. Furthermore, other accents of French are associated with the speaker’s past presence in neighboring countries such as Ivory Coast, Togo, etc. and the presence of those accents is a signal that you could be dealing with an individual who once lived in those countries.
In the above video, names were also purposefully used to confirm the speaker’s matching identity. In Burkina Faso, individuals’ names reveal a great deal about who they are. The last name usually indicates ancestry and ethnic group affiliation. The first name in many instances indicate religious affiliation. This implies that you can identify an individual’s ethnic group upon knowing their name. And as a mark of solidarity, individuals from the same ethnic group tend to use the ethnic group language as a way to confirm their affiliation to the group. As a result, an individual who fails to speak his ethnic group language will come across as disconnected from their roots, and unfit to be a “real” member of the ethnic group.
These are of course not all the auditory cues people rely on to determine an individual social characteristics in Burkina Faso. However, the few examples clearly show us that profiling takes different forms and uses different cues depending on the setting. In all the cases, we, human beings, try to have an insight about who others are using myriads of cues, including auditory cues. In your first encounter with some individuals, you have probably experienced this moment when their attitude or their facial expression suddenly changes upon hearing your first words…