cover image How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way Do—And What It Says About You

How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way Do—And What It Says About You

Katherine Kinzler. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-0-544-98655-8

Kinzler, a University of Chicago psychology professor, explores in this revelatory and thought-provoking debut the social assumptions people attach to accents and speaking styles, to sometimes devastating effect. Kinzler became interested in the subject while traveling in the former Yugoslavia, where she saw how linguistic variations played into ethnic enmity. Early on in the book, she presents famous cases from linguistics, including an episode in Nicaragua in the 1970s in which a group of deaf children newly enrolled together in school spontaneously developed a new sign language, and lighter contemporary topics, such as upspeak (the rising inflection that makes a statement sound like a question). Moving into more urgent territory, Kinzler takes aim at the “negative stereotypes of nonstandard accents,” which she finds still prevalent in American culture. She cites various examples of how prejudices against the way people speak have led to discrimination in housing, employment, and the justice system, including how, during George Zimmerman’s murder trial, the accent of a witness who was last to speak to Trayvon Martin before his death led jurors to largely discount her testimony. Well-written and entertainingly told, Kinzler’s persuasive exploration of linguistic-based differences will awaken readers to potentially unrecognized biases. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc. (July)