The reasons for this disparity are distinct between the demographic groups.

CHICAGO (November 1, 2019) – Most Americans are well aware that English sounds different throughout the country and that the existence of regional speech differences can contribute to widely held stereotypes. But new research from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy – published yesterday in the Journal of Human Resources – finds that speech patterns also strongly affect a person’s wages, particularly for African Americans.

Harris Public Policy Professor Jeffrey Grogger

The paper by Harris Professor Jeffrey Grogger finds that workers with racially and regionally distinctive speech patterns earn lower wages compared to those who speak in the mainstream. For Southern whites, speech-related wage differences are largely due to location, with Southern-sounding workers who live in rural areas earning less than those in urban areas. 

For the Black community, the wage difference – which can be significant – is explained by what Grogger terms sorting: mainstream-spoken African American workers sort into jobs that involve intensive interactions with customers and coworkers and earn a sizable wage premium in those jobs. Examples of those types of jobs include medical and health service managers, construction managers, sales and retail workers, dietitians, and first-line supervisors/managers of non-retail sales workers.

“While language has been studied in extensive detail by linguists, relatively little is known about how a worker’s speech is related to his or her wages,” said Jeffrey Grogger, the Irving Harris Professor in Urban Policy at Harris. “By studying the dialects of African American and Southern white workers, we found that wages are strongly related to their speech patterns – with those who speak in a mainstream dialect paid more.” 

“For Southern whites, this is largely explained by family background and where they live,” Grogger said. “For African Americans, however, speech-related wage differences are not explained by family background, location, or personality traits. Rather, members of the Black community who speak in a mainstream dialect work in jobs that involve intensive interactions with others and those jobs tend to pay more.”

Speech analysis unlocks realities about peoples’ prejudices and biases. Linguists have shown that listeners can generally identify the race of a speaker based on very short audio clips. Meanwhile, social psychologists have shown that both African American and white listeners routinely rate African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers lower than Standard American English (SAE) speakers in terms of socioeconomic status, intelligence, and even personal attractiveness. 

“While more research needs to be done, it’s appears that since listeners generally prefer mainstream to nonmainstream speech, this results in higher wages for mainstream-spoken workers in highly interactive sectors,” said Grogger.

Grogger has observed similar “occupational sorting” in his research about workers’ speech in Germanya country with wide variation in regional dialects, where workers who speak with a distinctive regional accent experienced a reduction in wages by an amount that is comparable to the gender wage gap. In addition, workers with distinctive regional accents tended to sort away from occupations that demand high levels of face-to-face contact. 

“Our research shows that the phenomenon of occupational sorting goes beyond the United States and might be universal. Regardless of location, people have strong views about the speech of others – and these views have economic and societal consequences,” added Grogger.

Data for Grogger’s U.S. research come from audio collected during the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY97), which is a large nationally representative panel survey of the labor market behavior of people who were ages 12-16 in 1997. After reviewing each audio file, listeners were asked to specify the speaker’s sex, race/ethnicity, and region of origin.

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For more than 30 years, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy has been driven by the belief that evidence-based research, not ideology or intuition, is the best guide for public policy. Guided by this exacting perspective, our exceptional community of scholars, students, and more than 3,700 alumni take on the world’s most complex challenges using the latest tools of social science. As one of the largest graduate professional schools at the University of Chicago, Harris Public Policy offers a full range of degree and executive education programs to empower a new generation of data-driven leaders to create a positive social impact throughout our global society. 

Jeffrey Grogger is the Irving Harris Professor in Urban Policy at the Harris School. An applied microeconomist, he has worked on issues including crime, education, migration, and various aspects of racial inequality.