Judging language in court

In the news these past weeks, the trial following the tragic and race-motivated killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year. His friend Rachel Jeantel has been talking before the judge, talking in African American English that is, a fact which has won her much mockery and a rather rude questioning from the defence lawyer regarding her ability to understand English (even though she was born and raised in Miami), to which she replied: “I don’t understand you, I do understand English”. 

While some criticised her ‘poor grammar’ and others tried to justify her language by the influence of her mother’s native Haitian creole, Jeantel merely represents a huge section of the American population who grow up speaking a non-standard dialect of English in their homes and communities, only to be told when entering public institutions that the language they speak is somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘ungrammatical’. 

It is neither, it is simply not the same as Standard American. If she says to the defence lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you”, she is simply using the preterite “had” in a perfectly acceptable way which would be familiar to millions of other African-Americans across the country. They would also be able to tell you that “I don’t be listening that much” is the correct form, and that “I ain’t be listening that much” doesn’t work.

As I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, there are multitudes of linguistic variation across the USA, only this one holds particular stigma. Linguists like John McWorther who wrote on this subject for Time openly caution against this type of linguistic prescription – not only prescribing rules that govern language which do not reflect the way that people really use it, but by doing so reinforcing an elite class and stigmatising an entire population because of the way they speak.

The linguistic prescription which results in the categorical repudiation of African American English has social ramifications akin to  racial profiling. From school to the job interview to the witness box in a court-room, every institutional environment operates with an assumption about your intelligence and trustworthiness based on the way you speak English. The current situation in the USA is hardly the first or the last of such cases through history, but is perhaps all the more surprising for occurring in what is supposed to be a wealthy western democracy proud of its grounding in the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”. As it turns out, the dialect you speak, perhaps as much as the colour of your skin, is a discriminating factor in social integration. If we hope to realise Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that people “will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” then surely Rachel Jeantel’s testimony should be judged not by the form of her grammar but by the content of her words.

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