Is it Fair? Whites are 'Expats'. Others are 'Immigrants'.

Language conveys a lot about who we are and how we perceive the world. In terms of human migration, we give out the label of expat or immigrant to foreign migrants, and each word has its own connotation.

Language conveys a lot about who we are and how we perceive the world. For instance, what comes to mind when you hear the word “ex-pat” (short for “ex-patriot")? Now, what do you think when someone says “immigrant”?


Nic Subtirelu called attention to a recent post written by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin from The Guardian, in a recent blog post on Linguistic Pulse. He pointed out how we appear to reserve the title of expat “exclusively for western white people going to work abroad.” While “immigrant” is seemingly used for everyone else — Subtirelu says, “those considered to be part of ‘inferior races.’”

Subtirelu decided to call Koutonin's assertion into question. Does the web divide expats and immigrants? Using the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE), he looked at the kinds of words that tend to appear beside “expat” and “immigrant” (and the pluralized versions of those words). He found:

“In terms of race, the graphic reveals clear tendencies toward immigrant being applied more frequently toward people of color, including, tellingly, the word non-white. Of course, reducing the issue purely to race would be a mistake.”

Rather, there's a relationship to socio-economic status and country of origin with these words and the expectations they carry with them. For instance, the word immigrant tends to imply a low-skilled worker who is expected to assimilate during their stay in the host country. Expats, on the other hand, tend to be thought of as financially stable, skilled workers who are expected to maintain ties with their native country. There's an air of elitism to the word expat, whereas with immigrants, we set such high expectations for people we may consider lowly.

“If it is acceptable for those we label expats to maintain their difference from their host countries, then it seems hypocritical to suggest that those we label immigrants should cast off their languages, cultures, and connections to their countries of origin.”

What do you think of Subtirelu's assessment?

Read more about his methods at Linguistic Pulse.

Photo Credit: Antonio Gravante / Shutterstock

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