Kate Kinnaird is a recent graduate of the Department of Linguistics at the Ohio State University. They are a sociocultural linguist who specializes broadly in the relationship between language and stigma, particularly as this applies to people in the sex trade. This summer, they are a Special Projects Consultant for the LSA, where their responsibilities include social media management, grant writing, preparing for the 2023 Annual Meeting, and working with the Centennial Planning Committee. Kate aspires to attend a graduate program specializing in sociolinguistics and continue their work on how language can entrench or deconstruct stigma.

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Explore previous Member Spotlights.

Q: How did you get into linguistics, and what keeps you here?

I’ve been extremely lucky to dip my toes into several different subfields over the course of my undergraduate degree. I’ve worked with OSU’s Prosodic Phonology Lab for over two years. Also at OSU, I’ve helped to organize a database of materials under the guidance of Donald Winford that includes recordings and transcripts of speakers of AAVE, Sranan Tongo, Trinidadian Creole English, and many other languages. Finally, I got to create content for OSU’s outreach initiative, Linguistics in High School (LxHS), created by Brian Joseph, which partners with a local Columbus high school to incorporate linguistics into the curriculum.

I am constantly inspired by the work of researchers such as Kirby Conrod, Norma Mendoza-Denton and Anne Charity Hudley, who use their work and platforms to affirm marginalized and minoritized speakers and scholars, who are often dismissed.

Q: Tell us more about your current research.

CONTENT WARNING: Misogynistic language.

My research examines and documents the ways in which speech encodes thoughts, opinions, and ideas about sex industry participants.

Even as society moves towards a position of neutrality in the way that we describe some marginalized and minoritized groups (for example, using the term non-citizen as opposed to other harmful and xenophobic alternatives), sex industry participants are still the subject of disdainful language and are commonly described as “prostitutes” or “hookers.” These terms embody prevailing beliefs held about sex industry participants, and in particular convey severe judgment.

The impact of stigma creates dangerous and isolating conditions for sex industry participants: previous work has demonstrated that people express significantly less empathy for sexual assault victims described as “prostitutes” or sex workers than those described as civilians.

Although some have embraced sex workers and ardently defended their humanity and right to work, the world as a whole has not made suitable progress in accommodating and accepting sex workers as a part of society—and the prevalence of derogatory, stigmatizing language makes this fact evident. As we seek to model language that embodies empathy in describing others, we cannot ignore sex industry participants, especially when the words that we use carry baggage that can actively harm marginalized people. This becomes all the more important when we consider that sex industry participants are often marginalized in multiple ways.

If we want to encourage the creation of legislation and media that humanizes sex industry participants, we must prioritize the use of non-stigmatic language. 

Q: What recommendations do you have for a younger scholar (e.g., high school student or early-stage undergraduate student) who is just getting into linguistics?

I would suggest reading any materials you can get your hands on and don’t shy away from exploring as many subfields as possible. Also, don’t be afraid to give the researchers whose work you enjoy a follow on social media!

Q: As a scholar of linguistic stigma, what responsibilities do you think linguists have to speakers of non-mainstream varieties and/or speakers experiencing language-based or other stigmata?

From my perspective,

  1. Linguists owe speakers resources that benefit the speakers we study. Performing research that ONLY benefits those in the realm of academia, and nobody else, is exclusionary and isolating. Accessibility is a must.
  2. As linguists, we must push to increase public understanding of issues related to linguistic prejudice. Learning and teaching others about linguistic bias and linguistic racism is a critical step to ensure justice for all. 

Q: One amazing thing about being a linguist is that we get to collect and analyze data everywhere we go, and that we try to be attuned to issues of linguistic prejudice and discrimination wherever they surface. In what ways does being a linguist inform how you consume media, social media, the news, etc.?

A background in linguistics has allowed me to be more critical of media that denigrates and/or mocks the language of minoritized and marginalized groups. All forms of media have the potential to encode overt and covert bigotry. When you cultivate a sensitivity towards acts of linguistic bias, you’re equipped with tools to call out and call in creators who are contributing to the linguistic prejudice that harms and those others minoritized and marginalized speakers.

Q: What do you do to unwind when you are not attending to your work, research, and internship responsibilities?

To decompress, I take long walks and listen to podcasts while out in nature. My current favorites are There Are No Girls on the Internet, Pick Me Up, I’m Scared and The Vocal Fries. I’m also a huge fan of audiobooks (pro-tip: get a library card and see if any apps partner with your library branch to offer audiobooks and ebooks)!