The impact of language and phenotype in classifications of ethnicity

Jess Birnie-Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


This paper examines how ethnic Chinese Indonesian college students from West Kalimantan classified others’ ethnic identity by drawing on perceptions of language and phenotype. Several studies have demonstrated the undeniable effect of phenotype on an individual’s perception of their own and others’ ethnic identit(ies). Additionally, numerous studies have highlighted the role of language in constructing and interpreting ethnic identity. However, until now, there have been no studies assessing the relationship between the perceptions of language and phenotype when making judgements on an individual’s ethnicity in Indonesia. Indonesia plays host to a large number of different ethnic groups, amongst whom, the ethnic Chinese are considered the most politically and socially controversial. The current study examines data from two sets of semi-structured interviews conducted with 24 Chinese Indonesian college students. The results showed that ethnic classifications were more likely to be language driven when participants perceived a binary correlation between language and ethnicity. However, when participants did not perceive an exclusive indexical relationship between language and ethnicity, phenotype was more significant in racial classifications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-44
Number of pages23
JournalAustralian Journal of Linguistics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Chinese
  • ethnicity
  • identity
  • Indonesia
  • Language perception
  • phenotype

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