RUSSELL RICKFORD: Thanks so much, Abbey. I know there was a great deal of work involved over a long period of time in bringing this special guest today. So I really want to express our gratitude to you in particular and to everyone else who was involved in making this lecture happen.
John Rickford, the JE Wallace Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Stanford University and immediate past president of the Linguistic Society of America, grew up in the Caribbean country of Guyana, a land of many waters and as they used to say, six races. There the melodious lilt of Creolise, the local patois, enveloped him. And he learned to appreciate the expressive genius of folk culture.
In the late '60s, Rickford went to the Unites States to study at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There he was initiated into the counterculture. He was also ushered into the sometimes mystifying ontology of blackness, the designation that had yet to achieve salience in the post-colonial nation of his origin. Encouraged to explore heritage and identity by his mentor, the African-American sociologist J. Herman Blake, he spent a quarter living and studying among the Gullah people of the South Carolina sea island of Daufuskie.
At graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the early '70s, Rickford and his spouse, the education and reading specialist Angela E. Rickford, discovered that the black people of Philadelphia performed quotidian gestures of solidarity and derision. They cut their eyes and sucked their teeth in much the same way that people did in Rickford's native Guyana. In a sense, this insight prepared Rickford for his life's work, researching the cultural and linguistic confluence of Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.
Rickford studied Guyanese creole at Penn, where he worked under William Labov. He also began investigating African-American Vernacular English, or Ebonics, which was then, and is now, both exulted as soul talk and deprecated as broken or bad English.
During the '70s and '80s, Rickford set out to describe new features of black dialect and to trace their creole as versus English origins. More recently, he has addressed the influence of ethnicity, gender, and class or linguistic behavior. He's attempted to demonstrate how recognizing the structure and regularity of black English and other vernacular forms can help improve the educational experiences and life chances of speakers of those varieties.
And he has tried to increase awareness of the power of language and the value of linguistic versatility. Rickford has received many honors, including the American Book Award, The Linguistics Language and the Public Award from the Linguistic Society of America, the UC Santa Cruz Achievment Award, and the Wordsworth McAndrew Award for outstanding contributions to Guyana's cultural life.
Rickford has authored and edited many books and articles. Some of his most enjoyable projects have been collaborations with family members, or so he says. With his son Russell, he co-authored Spoken Soul-- The Story of Black English back in 2000. And in 1976, he and Angela Rickford wrote a paper about African words and gestures in new world guise. The title of that piece, of course, was "Cut Eye and Suck Teeth." I'm very pleased to introduce my dad, John Rickford.
JOHN RICKFORD: Well, can you hear me? You hear me? Hello? OK, good.
Yeah, sorry, I wasn't prepared for this. I had no idea my son was going to introduce me. So excuse me taking a couple pictures.
It reminds me of when I first decided to co-author Spoken Soul-- The Story of Black English. And that was a very novel experience for me but very, very helpful. The book is very popular now with undergraduates and so on. And it's largely so because my son kept telling me, Dad, nobody's going to understand that crap. You've got to change it up.
And he helped me change it up. He used to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer for a while. So thank you very much. And thank you, Abbey, for giving him and me that privilege.
So I want to just ask a couple questions before I begin. One is, how many of you are linguistics majors or specialists? One, two, three-- OK, good. So that's fine. I've been trying to break things down for other folks, because the message I'm trying to get across needs to go way beyond linguistics, out to the general public, to lawyers and sociologists and ordinary people, because it's so vital.
My second question is, how many of you are 21? I'm not serving liquor or anything. OK, good. So the reason I ask is because that's the age that Trayvon Martin would be now if he were alive. And for all I know, he might have been at Cornell if other forces in society had worked probably the way that they should.
So as I've said here in my papers about justice for Jeantel, who was his good friend and the friend who was on the phone with him until minutes before he died in 2012, shot by George Zimmerman. But also for Trayvon, because Trayvon, of course, is dead, but I think in many ways, he has left a very important legacy, as you'll see later on.
For those of you who don't realize it, Trayvon Martin was the first spark and is credited by many people as starting the Black Lives Matter movement-- not Trayvon Martin himself, but the injustice that he suffered.
So let me give you a quick outline, which I have also in your handout. I want to just say a bit about why we want to focus on Rachel Jeantel, who was his friend who played a crucial role in the prosecution. I want to talk about other cases in which dialect prejudice is involved from 1954 to about 2015.
Then I want to hone in on Jeantel's dialect and give you a pretty detailed analysis of what it is, because everybody said, she just talks bad. She can't use English. And I want to show you that this is, in fact, completely wrong.
Then I want to talk about her intelligibility and incredibility, because crucial to this whole case was the question of whether she was intelligible and whether she was credible. And key jurors in the case-- in particular, juror B37 who was trying to write a whole book, until she went on TV and she got discredited through other means, said, I couldn't understand her at all. And in fact, I have the quotation for you.
So then I want to talk about vernaculars or non-standard varieties beyond the courts and schools and house mantles, going to doctor's visits. And it turns out that although you may not normally think about language-- many of you who may not be linguists-- and if you are a linguist, you might just think in terms of the details of pronunciation or syntax or semantics. It can, in fact, have massive consequences in terms of how and how well you live your lives.
Then I want to summarize the case, talk about language being on trial, and then talk about what can we do. So let me get started.
Why focus on Rachel Jeantel? We're already giving away part of the story. Well, at the time of the trial of George Zimmerman, which began a year after the killing-- less than a year after in 2013-- she was 18 at the time. She spoke African American Vernacular English, which is the term that the linguists use, often abbreviated to AAVE. You can use ebonics if you want to use a term that was popular back in '96, '97. But there's some slight differences in how people use it.
And on trial was George Zimmerman, who was 28 at the time, for the killing of Trayvon Martin. And Martin's death, in turn, and Zimmerman's acquittal sparked a powerful Black Lives Matter movement. And of course, this hardly needs saying, maybe especially to this audience, but it does have to be said [INAUDIBLE] again, that of course, it doesn't mean that black lives or black varieties are the only ones that matter. Of course, all languages matter, and all lives matter. But the phrase highlights the undervaluing and injustice suffered by some.
So why focus on her? Well, her dialect was very strikingly vernacular or non-standard. And as I said before, she was on the cell phone with Trayvon up to minutes or seconds before he died. So since he wasn't there, in many ways, she was the closest thing to the presence of Trayvon Martin in the courtroom, telling his story. She was on the stand for about six hours.
And if you'd gone through every page and line and second of the testimonies-- I have-- you'll see that it was absolutely crucial to the defense to try to impugn her testimony in many, many ways. And in fact, the judge was actually quite remarkable, because what you can't see when you're looking at a TV is all these little sidebars they had where the judge would say, I'm not going to allow you to do this. This is overruled. You're not going to be able to pursue this, because they thought she was the most important person to get out of the way so Zimmerman could be found innocent.
And so despite her centrality to the case, as I note here, no one mentioned Jeantel in 16 or more hours of jury deliberations. So in the jury deliberations, her name was pretty much never mentioned. And her testimony played no role whatsoever in their decision. This is juror Maddy, who was a Puerto Rican juror, in talking to Bloom in her 2014 book.
So in a sense, Jeantel's dialect, and of course, her whole story, was found guilty before Zimmerman was found in a sense. And in fact, in a sense, as a prelude to his being found innocent. So before I talk about her, I want to talk about other cases in which languages and dialects have played a role, in particular this larger class of vernacular or non-standard varieties that are spoken very often by ethnic minorities and working class people around the world.
And unlike separate languages, interpreters are almost never provided for speakers of different dialects. And lawyers and judges are not aware of the extent or the nature of the kinds of problems that these varieties pose. So I want to just start by giving you just a couple examples of some of the work that linguists have done on variation in language. This is an example from English, so I can keep it kind of familiar, looking at ethnicity and social class.
And so I have here on the left, from the work of Wolfram back in 1969, one of the classic studies of social class variation, but also at this variation. He's looking at the extent to which the frequency with which people delete their final T's and D's. Now linguists get excited about this kind of stuff. So if it doesn't immediately excite you, don't-- I always say, the beauty with being a linguist is when you're talking to somebody and the conversation gets boring, you can stop listening to what they're saying and start listening to how they're saying it.
And then they'll see a smile on your face, and they'll think you're enjoying what they're saying. But in fact, you're enjoying their [INAUDIBLE].
So anyhow, we look at how frequently people say "pass" instead of "past," or "han" instead of "hand." But you have this cluster of consonants, -ST or -ND, that's reduced where you lose the final T or D. And you can see here, looking at the upper working class, whites did this about 38% of the time-- 38% or 39% of the time. And actually, all the African American groups did it more frequently.
So a lot of times, in fact, dialect's differentiated by quantitative or frequency measures. At the same time, you can see there's a fairly regular relation between different social classes so that the upper middle class African Americans did it 51% of the time, and low working class African Americans did it about 84% of the time.
This is what's often called gradiently stratified variables-- small steps from one class to the other. Very often you get the grammatical features, like the deletion of the copula forms of is and are. So saying like, he tall. They walking. They jumping.
You find much sharper stratification. So in Wolfram's data, you can see here the two working class speakers have frequencies of 37% and 57%. And the middle class speakers have much less. So there's a sharp break between the middle and working classes. And in fact, as we'll see, those figures are actually tame, because among the teenage kids and so on that we've worked with in East Palo Alto and elsewhere, you get frequencies of 80% and 90% of the time that do not have forms of is and are in those sentences.
So this kind of stratification is found all over the world, all kinds of varieties. I'm just giving you some English examples to set the stage. Now in forensic linguistics looking at language and law, vernacular speakers around the word tend to be often misunderstood or unfairly judged. And Diana Eades gives some nice examples from working class speakers in Austria and Italy, which I'm not going to talk about-- just to give you a sense, again, that this happens elsewhere than in English.
But I want you to keep bearing in mind that this kind of thing happens around the world. Now let me give you some specific cases. A lot of our data actually comes because of very active forensic linguistics group from Australia. So there was an aboriginal witness in the northern territory of Australia.
And he referred, the night of this murder, he said there was a half moon shining. And then the person comes who was absolutely certain that there was no absolute half moon that night, trying to impugn the testimony. But the interpreter, who was aware that in this particular Australian English dialect, half just means small part, so something more like a crescent moon. Asked the witness to draw the moon he saw, and he drew something like this, rather than a half moon, so validating his testimony.
So she says, this Australian English interpreter was, in fact, on standby for witnesses who did not speak enough English and was absolutely crucial to the validity of the testimony that he had to offer. But in almost everywhere else in the world, there isn't anybody to do that kind of function.
There's another Australian English witness. This is a very nice case-- a central Australian case-- who referred to Charcoal Jack, properly his father. But this was officially mistranscribed as probably his father, because as a linguist would know, "p" and "b" are in fact, the exact same sound. "p," "b"-- it's only a question of whether you have voicing or not.
If I get too into the linguistic details, just pull me back, because I can go off. And then the eyes get glassy and so on and so forth. But the transcriber was unaware that properly actually meant real. So he was distinguishing his biological father from his brothers, who could also all be referred to as father. So in fact, it was the exact opposite. There was no uncertainty in the witness's mind. He was saying, this is absolutely the person's biological father.
Now here's a very interesting case from Jamaica. Witness in a police interview from a recording said, (NON-ENGLISH). So he's saying, when I heard the bop bop-- when I heard shots, I dropped to the ground. And then I started to run.
In the written report-- police report-- they just transcribed he says, when I heard the shot, I dropped the gun. And then I run. No, actually this is a potentially dangerous mistranscription, because drop is interpreted as a transitive instead of a transitive verb. And the "o," which just means drop to the ground, is interpreted as a gun as a definite article. So this and the other phonetic factors here contribute to the error.
Let me give you a very different kind of example--
OK, so this is English, another form of English. Now those of you who are historians will know that at one point, maps of the world were painted red, because that was a color often used to represent British English colonies. So the English spread all over the world. But English is kind of like a willow, not like an oak. It bends. So when people say they're speaking English, it's not necessarily the same English that you are speaking.
So this is a example actually of Sierra-Leone Krio, which is a Creolise form of English. If I had more time, I would go into what Creole means. But this is what it would look like in terms of transcription.
(NON-ENGLISH) I am a Sierra-Leone man. I want to give you a Creole proverb. And you can see what he was just saying. But chances are, without the translation or the class, you wouldn't know exactly what he was saying.
Now why is this relevant? Well, because it was actually a real case in New York in 2003 where the Sierra-Leone person was the victim of a crime in which a guy named George Smith slashed him with a box cutter. And the lawyer for Smith said that there had been a translator provided for Sambolah, the Sierra-Leone guy, talking pretty much like that guy.
And he said that, Krio is not some kind of language that one goes to a university and studies. It's nothing more than a Patois English with a bad accent. So we shouldn't have dignified it with a translation. And the judge denied the mistrial motion, citing historical and other information that Krio, although related to English, is a separate and distinct language that cannot be readily understood without an interpreter.
So I don't want to go off on a tangent. But let me tell you that in general, when the language is called pitches and Krios are mixed varieties that development when speakers of different languages come into contact, often through trade, but very often through slavery, colonialism, where people are brought forcibly together. And they have to work out a way of talking to each other. And very often, there are very systematic kinds of changes and reductions and mixtures that happen that produce these new varieties.
And in fact, I am one of the people who feels that African American English, in fact, came from this same kind of background. And I spent a lot of my life's work showing the connections with Jamaican Creole and Guyanese Creole and so on and so forth.
So I want to talk a bit now about some other cases involving African American English in the US. And I just have a little preamble which kind of builds on the point that Eades made in 2010, talking with language and the law. So we can note that although African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and although there's been a lot of work done on the structure and history of AAVE, there's almost no linguistic research which examines African American interactions in the legal process. So in many ways, the kind of stuff we're talking about today is brand new.
Now even more recent statistics are worse. You have the figures in front of you. But you can see the black man in state or federal prisons are often there 3.8 to 10.5 times more often than white men. And of course, there's a whole range of other historical and sociological factors that you can take into account for understanding that.
But I contend that language also plays a bit of a role. And we can see that, to some extent, in some work that my colleague John Baugh did some years ago. He had recorded the number of people-- Russell B, Leon B, and then these two brothers, JoJo A and Carlos A-- in their adolescent years. And they had fairly high percentages, nearly to 100% almost, of negative concord where you say things like, he don't know nobody. I ain't going nowhere, where you have negation both on the verbal auxiliary and on the indefinite pronoun-- nobody or nowhere.
And you can see that as they got older, they moved away from some of these forms. But Carlos A, who was serving a life sentence, in many ways remained at a very high use frequency of usage. And you can bet that in most jail populations, there is going to be a very high percentage of African American Vernacular English. And in fact, Jesse Jackson, who came to Oakland during the Oakland ebonics controversy of 1996, '97, confirmed that from his contacts at the time. And there's all other reasons we can give for that, but let's move on.
So let's look at some other cases, where one of the earliest cases in which we have some evidence of AAVE being used, or ebonics being used, was in the trial of Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi by JW Milam and Roy Bryant after going to the store to buy sodas and bubblegum-- in some ways, a kind of prelude to Trayvon Martin's experience. And as you may not know, that after it got an innocent verdict, and the jurors all got up and shook hands with the two defendants, congratulating them, the murderers published a full confession in Look magazine in 1956.
In any case, going back to my linguist points, asked in court to identify the gunman who took Emmett Till from his house, Reverend Wright, who was a relative, pointed a gnarled finger at JW Milam and announced in a loud, clear voice, "thar he." Now there's some question about the authenticity of that transcription, because normally, in African American English and most dialects, you don't get a loss of is or are at the of a sentence, a very heavy stress position. And you don't normally get that.
But there's no question that the Reverend Wright was a very strong vernacular speaker. And if we have access to the full transcript of that interview of that trial, then we might hear it.
More interestingly, more recently, because they have a little more detail, in 1965, there was a case involving somebody called Young Beartracks. That's from East Palo Alto, which is just across the freeway from Stanford University in Palo Alto. And Swett discussed it as one of the couple striking examples of linguistic or cultural bias in the system, because Beartrack's was convicted of murdering Chicago Eddie, although he claimed the deceased had been about to attack him with a razor. Andhe put him in the dozens, which I'm not going to try to explain right now.
But the prosecutor noted in talking about the case that it would have been easier to bring out the facts of the case if witnesses were unable to speak English so competent interpreters could have been used. So again, note this whole thing-- when you speak a dialect of English, then you don't get an interpreter.
By the way, you would have seen this if you looked at the trial of Zimmerman, because the Spanish speakers all had interpreters. But the African American English speakers did not. And that jury said that the greater part of the testimony had been incomprehensible to them.
Now there's a couple other recent cases involving African American English in the San Francisco Bay Area which I have come to be involved with, one involving a transcript of a 2015 recorded jail call from a suspect in a Bay Area city near East Palo Alto. And a lot of times it's very striking when you listen to some of these transcripts that sometimes people almost forget that all these jail calls are recorded.
But what's interesting to me is when you look at the transcripts, which are often just done by somebody-- the police may give a secretary and say, here, transcribe this-- that a lot of crucial things are left out. So for instance in these examples, "he come tell me bout I'm gonna take a TV" is mistranscribed as "I'm going to take a TV." Now what's that missing?
"He come tell me" is a whole lot of attitude. It's not just he's going to take the TV. This is what [INAUDIBLE] called a come of indignation, and that's totally missing. He just said, I don't know what the hell they're saying.
"They done got it" was mistranscribed as "they got it." "They done tore that room up" is mistranscribed as "they just tore that room up." And "I'm finna be admitted" is mistranscribed as "I'm fit to be admitted."
And "finna"-- well, it comes originally from "fixing to." But it's reduced to "fittina." And it's very often produced as "finna," means it's about to happen. You don't tell somebody, I'm finna leave, and then half an hour, you're still there. They want to know like, OK, you leaving or not?
So a lot of the juice of African American and vernacular English lies in what we call these tense aspect markers that come before the verb, like when somebody says, she been married. Well, depending on what your ethics are, that means she is married. And she's been married for a long time.
And very often we found when we've done analyses and done interviews, we find that across other dialects, these forms are not understood. And so a lot of the intelligibility issues, in fact, don't involve whether you lose your final T's or D's but involve these deep grammatical forms. And I'll talk a bit more of that later on.
So let me tell you a bit about Rachel Jeantel. So again, she was 18. She was a senior at Miami's Norland High School-- fascinating school. When it was first started, it was 100% white. Now it's 100% black and Latino. And that's a whole other story.
Her mom is a seamstress. Dad's a taxi driver from the Dominican Republic. And as I said, she was absolutely central to the prosecution.
One of the ways in which she was central is that her story, her account of Trayvon's story, directly contradicts Zimmerman's, showing that Trayvon Martin was running away from George Zimmerman, rather than running to him or lying in wait for him, as the defense tried to say.
She was on the stand for nearly six hours, 298 pages of transcript. And the defense tried to impeach her, as I said, for allegedly changing her testimony from a sworn pre-trial interview. But she was castigated in the media.
In fact, some of you seem to remember that [INAUDIBLE] for her speech. This is just the tip of the iceberg. As you know, the internet is full of the vilest kinds of things that people can think of, because they feel that they're anonymous or whatever. "She's a dullard, an idiot, an individual who can barely speak in coherent sentences."
"Sorry, but this is a blather of an idiot." "This lady is a perfect example of uneducated urban ignorance. When she spoke, everyone hear, 'mumble mumble duh. I'm a Miami girl, duh.'" "Rachel Jeantel cannot even speak English. She speaks Haitian hood rat"-- whatever that is.
So we have a lot of data on Rachel Jeantel, as it turns out. I started collecting data. Actually some of the data they got, a lot of data got-- and we were pretty far into the analysis- actually came from Don West who was the attorney for George Zimmerman. I suspect to some extent he's had buyer's remorse over the years. But be that as it may, don't quote me on that.
But we got this deposition that wasn't a part of the public record. So that's about four and three, seven, one-- eight and a half hours. So we have about 50 hours of testimony, and it's recorded. And we have transcripts for some of it, although the transcripts are wrong on some key points.
So we have two general questions to ask as we go through this-- and I'm going to try not to get too involved with the linguistic detail-- is, how systematic is she? Because the notion that her blather is incoherent is directly contrary to what linguists, in fact, in general expect. So linguists, in general, expect that all languages and dialects are systematic and regular. A, because you can't acquire a dividend, and B, you can't use it if it isn't, if I can do some variation myself.
And then we want to also know how her usage compares with early descriptions of African American English in the US and then with English or French-based creoles in the Caribbean. So in terms of her sound system, we want to get an idea what she is doing. Remember we showed you some earlier frequencies of how often people delete T's and D's. And excuse us, but linguists really like this kind of stuff, or they have for many years.
So you can see that she's deleting her T's and D's about 88% of the time, which is comparable to some of the work done by Labov with adults in Harlem in the 1960s and comparable, pretty much, to a lot of the work in African American situations. This, because it's a little more complicated, I don't want to get too involved in it. But what we're looking at here is the conditioning.
So linguists know that a lot of what people do with language is very strongly conditioned by environmental factors, like does it come before a consonant? Before a vowel? Is it a past tense marker, or not?
So I can tell you that past-- when I just say, past, they delete the final T, well, you think of P-A-S-T. But there's another passed, which is P-A-S-S-E-D. He passed by.
Now it turns out, because in that second case, that E-D that comes out as "t" has grammatical work to do. It tells you that it is past tense. I pass by, I passed by. That T has grammatical work to do. And it turns out that very systematically in almost every dialect we look at, the T that has grammatical work to do is reduced less often than the T that does not have grammatical work to do.
If I say, "in the past," that second T-- that T doesn't have any grammatical work to do. But in the first case, he passed by, it does have grammatical work to do. Speakers are sensitive to that.
And the speaker is sensitive, too, to the fact that you have a following consonant for any vowel. So if you say "he passed over," and you say, "he passed by," speakers know that there's another consonant coming after that T. So in general, speakers try to avoid a build-up of consonants. So when there's going to be three consonants in a row, it's more likely they're going to delete that T in "passed by" than in "passed over."
Now you may not think so. You don't sit around and think about this. Your mom or your dad never sat you down at five and said, no, Billy, you got to be very careful if you've got a following consonant. Or if it's mon or morphemic or past tense. But you know it.
So she's very systematic. And she's similar to other speakers in that, as you can see, she has, in general, more deletion-- red is Rachel Jeantel-- she has more deletion before a consonant. This means with following consonant. So think of it as before a following consonant, then before a following vowel. Similarly, past tense before a consonant and before a vowel. And in general, she has higher figures here-- not that much higher-- but 94% versus 92% when it's past tense as against the other kind of situation.
Now another thing that we looked at was what happens with pin and pen. Now it turns out in African Amerian English, like in many southern dialects, pin and pen are often pronounced the same. This is what's called a merger.
So in fact, people will say, are you talking about a-- you say, "Lend me a pin." You say, "Well, you mean a sticking pin or a writing pen?" So there's that merger of [INAUDIBLE]
So when we looked at the mergers of Rachel Jeantel, pin and pen, we find that there's some overlap. We see this overlap between pin and pen, but it's not complete. We have some instances of pin that are outside of that area.
This is kind of interesting, because African American English has pin and pen together, but Caribbean English does not. So this is one of the little clues. So again, this is the things we're thinking about when you're going on and on and on about your grandkids.
We are grandparents. So when you're grandparents, you get grandkids, you think everybody wants to hear about them. So when you talk about that for 30 minutes and we stop paying the content, we're listening to our pins and pens and so on and so forth, and trying to see what you're doing with your vowels.
Now let's look at some of her grammar. So she has a lot of classic African American English features, multiple negation, or negative concord-- I ain't hear nothin. Remote past tense-- BIN-- the one that I was talking about-- "I BIN knew I was the last person to talk to Trayvon." Then she has this slightly unusual construction, but it's the same kind of thing. "I was BIN paying attention."
So I knew I was the last person to talk to Trayvon, and I've known it for a long time. Preterite had-- "Then I had call him back. The next day I had got a text from my brother." Doesn't work exactly like regular pluperfect had in English, because she's actually using it instead of saying, then I called him back. So in fact, she's often describing not something that happened earlier than something else, but something that happened after. And you could tell by things like [INAUDIBLE].
A spectral "be"-- when there was ebonics controversy, this was the feature that was most widely misunderstood. Everybody who wrote a column or had a little article saying that African American English was garbage, they would say, look, Russell be sitting in the chair. No, you cannot use "be" like that.
If I said, Russell be sitting in the chair, it means Russell is usually sitting in a chair. Russell be sitting in a chair every day. Or she be coming by here regularly. But it's not a straight equivalent for present tense "is." And so very often you'll find it co-occurring with things like sometimes or usually.
Existential "it" instead of "there"-- so there was a rumor going around. It was a rumor going around the school. These are all classic features of African American English.
Now I'm going to give you a little quantitative analysis so you can see how systematic she is. So I wanted to play a little video of Rachel Jeantel in court. And if you could kindly look at the first thing on the handout, the first example in the handout. And we use the symbol 0, or just a O, to highlight the absence-- a systematic absence-- of plural and possessive S's and the absence of copula forms "is" and "are" in her speech.
- [INAUDIBLE] I asked him, where you at? And he told me he had been [INAUDIBLE] over his daddy fiance house-- like in the area where his daddy fiance buy his daddy [INAUDIBLE]. I said, oh, you better keep running. He said, no, he lost her.
- OK. [INAUDIBLE]
This lady's going to take everything down, so you make sure-- so after he said, he lost him, what happened then?
- [INAUDIBLE] area that his daddy house is-- his daddy fiance house is-- and I tell him, keep running. And he said, no, he just going faster. And I'm like, oh. [INAUDIBLE] so I don't understand why.
- What happened after that?
- And then something [INAUDIBLE]
- [INAUDIBLE] later.
- A couple second later, [INAUDIBLE] oh, shit.
- Let me interrupt a second. When you say, the words, oh, shit, pardon my language, who said that?
- He said it to you?
- OK. And after he, pardon my language, he said, oh, shit, what happened then?
- [INAUDIBLE] behind me.
- I'm sorry.
- Them nigga behind me.
- OK, he used the N word again and said, the nigger is behind--
OK. There's a lot of interesting content in that. But let me draw attention to her S's. But you'll see, by the way, the validation of the point that he was trying to run from Zimmerman, trying to get away from him.
Anyhow, so three S's-- so this third present S, "it make him hungry," she has no use for it. 98%-- almost 100% of the time, it's not there. Possessive S-- "his daddy fiancee house"-- is somewhat less, 93%. And then plural S is lost much less often-- 32% of the time.
That's still higher than it is in most other analyses of African American English, as you'll see. But we'll see the systematic relation. So if we compare her with other speakers of African American English, you can see that she's very similar to the [INAUDIBLE]. And in fact, statistically, there's no difference between these top three speakers and the data from Detroit.
A little more than the [INAUDIBLE] in Harlem and more than as one grad student found in Chapel Hill, North Carolina-- if you look at her zero possessive rate, you'll see that's also very high. Little higher than many other people, but indistinguishable from [INAUDIBLE] Boston, person I've done a lot of work with in East Palo Alto.
If you look at her zero plural S rate, you'll see-- now a lot of people think that a lot of black speakers say "too col" and "three car." They actually don't do that very often. They do it about, if we look at these studies, between 3 and 11, or 13% of the time.
She does it more often than them. But she's sensitive to the grammatical difference between this S and the other S's in that she does deletion of this one much less often than the other forms. Moreover, if you look at how she reacted when she went on the Piers Morgan show-- some of you may remember Piers Morgan-- a lot of conservatives got him booted out of America, but he was a very interesting guy and a very active anti-gun advocate. It's one of reasons he left.
You see that she didn't shift at all in her other features. But her zero plural S dropped, in fact, at a kind of characteristic level of other African American English speakers. So she's sensitive to the grammatical difference between them. Listen to this excerpt that you have in your handout-- number two in your handout, I think.
- So deaf creep me out. I don't do deaf at all. I even told my parents [INAUDIBLE] I'm not going to they grave. I'm not going-- I don't like funerals.
OK. So you have the whole thing. But if you look at the overall transcript, you'll see that she uses her S a lot more. And there's a lot of reasons for why she behaved differently in this. Piers Morgan sat down with her and he said, look, people say you're stupid. I don't think you're stupid. Just relax. I'm your friend. You can be OK with me.
And then Rod Vereen, who was a black lawyer from-- I think you can see Rod Vereen in some of those things. He also did a lot of work to prepare her for the interview in terms of getting relaxed and so on and so forth.
So I want to say a little bit about copula absence-- that is the absence of "is" or "are"-- because if we spend a lot of time working [INAUDIBLE] there's a beautiful example of how systematic African American English is. So in general, African American English, you can't delete it. You can't delete "is" or "are" at the end of a clause.
So she says, "he by the area." You notice there's no "is" here. "He by the area where his daddy fiancee house is." So as often as she deletes it, she keeps it at the end of a clause. She contracts, but he she doesn't delete the first person "am."
This is different from the Caribbean. The Caribbean, you can delete "am." African American English, you can't. You can contract it. "Am bad" or something, but you don't say "I bad" or "I bad."
She can contract. But she doesn't delete the is in tha's, wha's and i's. "Da's old school people." She doesn't say, that old school people. She has a little words deletion, which resembles the Caribbean English Creole. "I was just shocked that my voice on television." There's a little ambiguity. It's better you should actually consider the words or a kind of historic person is.
And then she behaves like other African American English speakers in that she is systematic. She has more deletion of are than is, which we find in almost every single study since the 1960s. And again, if you look at her rates, she's in fact comparable-- actually a little less-- than some other speakers within African American English.
And I'm not going to go through all these factors. This is the linguist in me. But African American English, again, is absolutely regular. People delete it more often before "gonna." You're more likely to say "he gone do it," or "he gonna do it" than you are to say, "he a man."
And I can take a literary passage this long. And I do that in exams in my class. And you'll find that gonna is deleted most often. And then adjective lock and the [INAUDIBLE] in between and noun phrase like, "he a boy," happens least often. But I'm not going to do that.
So let me come off of the phonology and grammar, which is where linguists get really excited, and talk a bit about lexicon. So in general, linguists are less interested in lexicon because it doesn't have that kind of system a lot of times. But there's some occasional example of possible influence from Haitian. And then there's the, what I call, the incendiaries-- nigga and creepy ass cracka-- because it turns out, Maddy, the Puerto Rican juror, gives us information that once people heard nigga and creepy ass cracka, and through skillful manipulation by the defense of Zimmerman, they were finished with her.
In fact, they thought of her as a racist. She's using nigga. She's using the nigga word. Well, of course, as she explained in her TV interview, for her generation, nigga, in fact, very often is bleached of ethnic reference. That's how come Trayvon was using it of Zimmerman-- "the nigga behind me."
And creepy ass cracka is a whole other story, but I'll come back to it. But let me just give you an example of somebody with potential French influence. And I think I have it-- she has this phrase, "I live under my mother." And it's not a regular Haitian Creole expression, but it maybe comes from Haitian Creole (NON-ENGLISH).
And some of you may have heard this kind of expression now, because not only black people-- as long as you are under my roof, you're going to follow my rules. But listen to this little video here. This is the deposition.
- No, I live under my mother.
- What do you mean by that?
- She support my habit.
JOHN RICKFORD: She support my habit-- not drug habit.
- Well, when you say she supports your habit.
- She give me what I wants.
- Can you be a little more specific?
JOHN RICKFORD: This is Don West.
- She support me.
- I see. OK. She pays for you to do what you--
So you can see she has some issues even with Don West. But let's talk a little bit about these other forms. I've said a little bit about nigga. And it's often a generation thing.
A lot of older black speakers are very strongly opposed it. A lot of younger blacks, because they use nigga more generally. Jeantel talks about it. Spears gives a whole linguistic analysis of it.
Creepy ass cracka-- a lot of things I could say about it. I'm not going to go into all of them. But it's a very general structure in which adjectives are modified by ass. There's a lot of questions about exactly what that means. But it's an intensifier.
Creepy ass cracka-- well, there's a lot of things. He's trying to say he was creepy. Actually, one of things that Trayvon was saying was that he thought this guy was out to get him. And he was scared about exactly what the relation was. And he was worried about him trying to get his brother-- his half brother-- who was back home.
But I have on the handout-- if I get time, I'm going to maybe play a little example, because some speakers use this a lot. And they use it a lot when they're in an antagonistic relationship. But it doesn't have necessarily the kinds of connotations that the jury said.
So as Maddy said, white jurors were offended by creepy ass cracka and were done with Jeantel once they heard that. Also by the use of nigga-- and so defense counsel exploited this and painted Trayvon and Jeantel as the racist, not Zimmerman. And there's a powerful analysis that just came out by Tyanna Slobe, a graduate student. She was at Colorado, now at UCLA, and another grad student who is doing a whole dissertation on this at Georgetown, Grace Sullivan.
So overall, I would say from the phonology, from the grammar, and lexicon, it's clear that Rachel Jeantel's linguistic variation is systematic, which is no surprise to linguists. And it's clear that her system is primarily African American English. It is no surprise. She has a Haitian and a Dominican Republic father. But she's born and raised in Hawaii-- sorry, in Miami.
But in terms of her internal linguistic constraints, her variation also shows some Caribbean influences. And this is something on which we're doing some more work. So let me get to this fourth part about her intelligibility and credibility.
So when she was asked by Anderson Cooper if she found it hard to understand Jeantel, juror B37, as she was identified, said, "a lot of the times." So let's listen to that interview.
- Did you find it hard, at times, to understand what she was saying?
- A lot of the times, because a lot of the time, she was using phrases I had never heart before and what they meant.
- When she used the phrase, "creepy ass cracka," what did you think of that?
- I thought it was probably the truth. I think Trayvon probably said that.
- And did you see that as a negative statement or a racial statement, as the defense suggested?
- I don't think it's really racial. I think it's just everyday life-- the type of life that they live and how they're living and the environment that they're living in.
- So you didn't find her credible as a witness?
So there's a lot you can analyze in that whole-- there's a kind of distancing in the "they," "they live." And by the way, she believes some things and not others. So in other words, when Rachel Jeantel says that Trayvon Martin said creepy ass nigga, she believes that, because he probably talked like that. But what that means is that she has a certain opinion also about it.
But it is clear that there were some problems with the jury understanding. I don't have this clip here. But when the trial began, Jeantel is testifying. And she says, "yeah, now following him." And Bernie de la Rionda, who is the prosecution, said, "Now following him. OK. What I'm going to do, Rachel Jeantel--"
And the court sees a question up from one of the jurors. She says, "OK, one second please. Yes, ma'am?" And the juror says, "He's now following me or-- I'm sorry. I just didn't hear." "OK, can we one more time give the answer again?"
The witness said, "he said, he told me now that a man is starting following him, is following him." The juror says, "again or still?" And the court says, wait a second. You can't ask questions. You're not a lawyer. You're not a ratified defense attorney. And juror says, OK.
And the court judge says, if you don't understand, just raise your hand. But the truth of the matter is, they're kind of intimidated. And they stopped raising their hand.
So now are any of you in law? Anybody in law? Well, I just think it would be nice if we had a couple in law. But [INAUDIBLE] I'm thinking, well, the jurors get all the transcripts. They don't. Jurors do not get a transcript of the evidence.
You can request clarification. You can ask for clarification at a particular point. But you do not routinely get transcripts. Transcripts are very often only used for appeal later on. So we'll come back to that point later on.
So why was she not understood or believed? Well, a lot of the other jurors distanced themselves from this juror B37. But there were absolutely no African American Vernacular English speakers on the jury. Geragos-- what's his first name? Michael? Anyhow, he said that once there were no black speakers on the jury, the trial was over. Well, he wasn't talking with linguistics, but he was talking about other factors such as empathy and understanding and so on.
And there were a lot of cultural and linguistic nuances, I think, that might have made it hard for the primarily white jury to understand. So some of the factors that might have contributed is some of these grammatical features we were talking about-- lexicon and the grammar. We don't have as much work as we like of the extent to which AAVE is comprehended by non-African American English speakers.
We have some examples. I'm going to go through these not very quickly. One of the studies I did as a graduate student was looking at that same sentence I gave you earlier. Somebody asks somebody at a party, is she married? And they say, oh, she been married.
Well, you need to know that she is married. That's the first part. Most of the African Americans I interviewed at the time got that part right. And they also got other questions I asked about it. It means not only she is married now, but she's been married for a long time.
The whites-- only eight of the 25 got A right. And only one got all the sub-questions right. 12 of them got all three of the questions wrong.
Jones Taylor-- Jones and Kalbfeld-- these are two graduate students who are doing some work now. And they're going to be presenting at the next meeting of Linguistic Society of America. And from there, the AAVE speakers that they-- they had a whole series of questions, statements they got out of court proceedings which they then used in their tests.
And it says AAVE speakers were 100% accurate both in transcription and paraphrase. Non-African American English speakers were only 45% accurate, especially with things like habitual "be" and stress "been."
So the point is, there's a lot of stuff that goes on that you take for granted that you don't realize is not being sufficiently understood by speakers across different dialects. And there are other examples like this. Some examples I use in my classes all the time.
You talk about the kitchen. You ask a group of black students about the kitchen, especially black women. They know what it means. It doesn't mean the place you go and cook. It means the nape of your neck, which tends to be more curly or kinky and needs more attention maybe when you go to the hairdresser. Ashy of your skin and so on and so forth-- and so those are just some of the examples that we have.
I'm going to go a little fast, because I don't want to keep you here too long. But I think we have other very clear evidence that things like intelligibility and understanding go beyond the linguistic forms and involve people's attitudes to different dialects. So I'm not going to take all the examples.
But Rubin 1992 and Kang and Rubin found that undergrads who routinely complain about Asian TA's, especially if they're from another part of the world, they say they can't understand them. And if you play a standard English soundtrack and you tell the undergraduates that a speaker's Asian, then their understanding drops. If you don't tell them they're Asian, they're going along fine. But once they hear that's an Asian TA, then it drops.
And we have very old research actually on this where again, you play the same kind of soundtrack. If you show a white speaker, it's heard as more standard. If you show a brown or a black speaker, it's heard as more non-standard.
And that, as they say here, Lev-Ari and Keysar has a very interesting bit of research. And they use foreign accented English. And they took some statements that people are not too sure about. So one of the statements I think they had was like, ants never sleep. I don't really know.
Ants are supposed to be so hard working. And they're busy all the time. And so I guess everything has to sleep. Well, it turns out if the person who makes the statement is seen or heard as a straight, regular, native born American English speaker, people believe it. But if it's heard with a foreign accent, especially if it's a heavily accented English, then people don't believe it. So there's a relation between intelligibility and accentedness and credibility, which we're just beginning to untangle.
So Lindemann and Subtirelu summarized it as whether or not something is understood is a function of both the speaker and the listener. It's an attitudinal relation. It's not just an objective matter.
And I want you to look at some of the ways in which we're conditioned to have certain attitudes to language. And one of the worst agencies of this is Walt Disney cartoons. Of course, it's not just Disney cartoons. You look at the comic strips with a lot of popular culture.
So B37's comments about the type of life that they live-- If If you look at the Disney cartoons, like the crows in Dumbo, the hyenas in The Lion King-- they instill the standard English ideology and association of the dialect with trifling, bullying, unsavory characters. So Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantel were heard as non-standard, therefore less credible and more culpable. Let me just play a little bit from Dumbo so you can hear this part.
- Did you ever see an elephant fly?
- Well, I seen a horsefly.
- I seen a dragonfly.
- I seen a house fly.
- Yeah, I seen all that, too. I seen a peanut stand and heard a rubber band. I seen a needle in a [INAUDIBLE] eye. But I'll be done seen about everything, when I see a elephant fly.
- What'd you say, boy?
- I said when I see an elephant fly. I seen a front porch swing, heard a diamond ring. I seen a polka dot railroad tie. But I'll be done seen about everything when I see an elephant fly.
- I saw a [INAUDIBLE]
OK. It goes on and on. Now it's interesting because as a matter of fact, none of [? them are ?] using African American English, but some of the features they're talking about-- "be done seen," which is actually a future perfect and very often a conditional perfect-- linguists didn't start talking about until 1980s. John Baugh's work was first discussed.
And that's a very powerful expression. We heard it a lot when we were living in Philly. Tessa better look out. She be done had her baby at-- Tessa was planning to move, but she hadn't yet moved. She kept putting it off. And they said, she better look out because she'd be done had her baby at the same address if she doesn't get moving and move out.
So it's a future perfect. By this point in the future, this thing would already have happened. So it's a complex form, but it's African American English. And here these crows, if you remember the first time you saw Dumbo, Dumbo is a guy you like, the elephant. And the crows are really not that cool. They're cool in their own way, but they're not likable characters.
And my colleague Rosina Lippi-Green has done a very powerful analysis showing how in many, many movies, African American English is used to demean and diminish its speakers. Well, I'm going to skip this part. The "beyond" part of my title was to show you that some of these issues arise in education.
Teachers, like in this slide here-- Vivian Paley in White Teacher said she couldn't understand a word of her students. And it arises in ways we take that into account. Some of the work of Labov shows that if you take the African American English speakers into account, you can, in fact, help to increase their reading achievement in various ways. But I'm going to skip that.
My colleague John Baugh has talked a lot about the powerful effect of language in relation to being able to rent an apartment. Depending on the voice you use when you call up for an apartment, the apartment is either available or not available, because people use the language to code the ethnicity of the speaker who's calling.
And we have some data from other people, Fischer and Massey, showing this is the accent with which you actually get housing. And you can see with white English, it's really high. And it goes down with a black accent. That's just the pronunciation. And if you use other grammatical features of AAVE then it drops dramatically.
By the way, people are beginning to go through this now with Airbnb. They're beginning to get accounts of people not getting access to Airbnb houses. And then it can also affect medical examinations and misunderstandings within medical examinations.
OK, let me get to my summary before you all fall asleep or have to go to dinner. So what I tried is zoom in on RAchel Jeantel and the injustice that was done to her in court. Her African American English, although systematic and valid as a language variety, was misheard or evidence was disregarded, and often through unfamiliarity and social prejudice.
So then I try to zoom out and get you to look at African American English that very often exacerbates prejudices that are rooted in race and class and across dialect encounters in other domains. I didn't spend as much time on that as I'd like to.
And I would like maybe zoom out even further and have you think about vernacular speakers from other ethnic groups, languages, and regions around the US and around the world, which are misheard and misjudged by police, judges, juries, teachers, landlords, doctors, employers in everyday life.
So what can we do? And linguists are very fond, in their introductory courses, of saying that language is what most uniquely distinguishes us from other parts of the animal kingdom-- what makes us human. So then shouldn't we be more centrally involved in vital human issues? And these issues are everywhere.
And I think some of the things we need to do as linguists-- those of you who are linguists-- is do more research and cross-dialect intelligibility, say yes to work on cases and projects involving African American English, speakers in courts. For many years, I did not, either because I was doing other theoretical work, or because I had a sense that it wasn't valued within linguistics.
And I think we need to continue to push for vernacular speakers to be heard, to be given a fair hearing in these and other domains. That is, you can't say, I will only take witnesses who speak the Queen's English. I can't even say the President's English, because presidents are a whole other case. See my colleague's book on the going nuclear.
I forgot his name. Please, help me, please-- the linguist who wrote the book George Bush's use of language, which is interesting. But in any case, we can't hand pick our witnesses. We've got to take-- if X saw the murder-- if X saw the theft-- then X is who we have to have as the witness.
And so the courts have to devise a better system for dealing with it. But the courts need to be aware first that there is a problem in the way that those dialects are perceived. So I think what can we do as citizens [INAUDIBLE] ones. One thing is we could push for interpreters as an option. It's a troublesome issue, because a lot of speakers will feel that they're being singled out maybe for attention. They'll say, look, I speak English like everybody else.
A lot of speakers are not aware of how often what they say is not totally understood in language. But I think it's an option we need to have.
I think related to this is that we need to end peremptory strikes against African American jurors. Those of you who might be involved in law know that a lot of lawyers can use-- they [INAUDIBLE] at anything. He's wearing a green shirt. I've had bad luck with people wearing green shirts on the jury. And they're allowed a large number of these. And they get rid, systematically, of a lot of African American jurors.
And I think that linguists and native speakers at least check the transcripts for accuracy before they admit it as evidence. And maybe also then have more access to transcripts and corrected transcripts in court.
And again, I think in terms of, going back to linguists for a moment, I think we need to get out of our linguistics labs and libraries, at least some of the time, and make more of a difference in the world. And some of our leading linguists have already shown that you can very fruitfully combine theory and analysis.
And then more generally, stay woke. So follow Yale students Olevia Boykin and Christopher Desir in revealing very harsh truths about the police and about language. And then I like this-- I don't use these phrases from day to day. I got to be hip to it as I work with younger and younger students.
Stay vigilant and be aware that these factors play a role in daily interactions and in court cases. We don't know how many thousands and thousands of people may be serving time in jails. They may already have problems with living while black. But speaking black might have been a part of the issue that's involved.
So I think also, fight dialect prejudice. So the negative impact extends to thousands, if not millions of people, in courts, schools, jobs, hospitals, housing searches, and so on.
So I just want to thank the Stanford students who work with me most. Sharese King and I-- grad student-- finishing up a paper in the next month to submit to language. Carra Rentie, Jonathan Kim, [? Rorota ?] Martinez, Marly Carlisle, Habib Olapade, Angelica Previte, and [? Myesia ?] Anderson. And then other acknowledgments-- whole bunch of Stanford people who work with me.
I stuck in some of the colleagues I remembered. But I forgot to put my colleagues in Africana and other places that I'm just reaching. But thank you for all your contributions to making this lecture possible. And thank you for the opportunity to be here.
I always knew Cornell was a great place. But I knew it's an even greater place once they gave my son tenure. But thank you, and I'm happy to take any questions.
Big and small--
ABBEY: Thanks, John, for-- can people hear this-- for a wonderful talk. I'd people who'd like to ask questions or have comments actually to come up to the mic. And also, please identify yourself if you could.
JOHN RICKFORD: I hope that's not too scary for you. Maybe we could put the mic a little further back or something so they don't have to come up. Yes?
CAROL BOYCE DAVIES: Carol Boyce Davies, Africana Studies. I enjoyed your talk completely and thank you for that work.
We did a really interesting segment soon after the trial ended in Africana, and some of it is on Cornell webcam, or whatever it's called. My question, though, is, in her subsequent interviews, I think it was with Piers Morgan, she identified a speech defect and said that she had. How does that factor in to all of the intelligibility questions?
And then secondly, a lot of people felt that the prosecution didn't prepare her properly. Should they have had a linguistic consultant as well to help with that process?
And also relatedly, just because I've lived in Miami and worked in Miami, there's an intelligibility issue also within the state so that people who are in that regional Miami where you have Haitian, Dominican, and other Latin American linguistic communicators totally different from further north-- Tallahassee, Sanford, and places like that. So you have the regional thing going on as well.
But I wondered, how do those factors fit into the analysis?
JOHN RICKFORD: Rigth. You may have to remind me of all the questions. So she claimed--
CAROL BOYCE DAVIES: The speech defect one was first.
JOHN RICKFORD: Yeah. One was where she claimed she had an underbite. And I've had some colleagues at the University of Washington do some analysis of some features of her speech. It seems to potentially affect some of her sibilance and so on. But whatever the underbite contributed, and it's a convenient-- it may be a reality, but she has all these features that make her a classic African American speaker.
And the things that [INAUDIBLE] juror B37 talks about didn't really have to do with the underbite. So I think that whatever that might have contributed-- I don't want to nay-say what she says-- the grammatical and the phonological features were major issues. And the lexical features-- the nigger, the creepy ass cracka-- as the jury says, once they heard it, that was it. They said, she's out the window.
What was the middle question that came after that? Oh, insufficient-- I try to be sympathetic. I'm not a lawyer. Don't know what it's like, but they did not prepare her enough.
And if you read [? Lisa ?] Bloom's book, she has some little scenarios where she tries to prepare how she would have prepared Jeantel for some of these issues. And just seeing the impact that Piers Morgan had, you get a sense that she would have done better.
She was really young. She was very young. Well, I'll tell you what else-- the defense was masterful. They're on the wrong side. I don't like them. But if you look at the way they went about it, they were very masterful.
One of the things that-- she has a fantastically regular and powerful spoken vernacular. But at the time she was [INAUDIBLE] appeared in court, she really couldn't read. She's not a good reader. She's actually a terrible reader. My wife who's a reading specialist, the first time she saw her, she said, know she can't read.
So what does the defense do? They say, Miss Jeantel, here is a statement that you gave in court yesterday. Take a look at it. And would you read it for us? And then she said, I don't read cursive.
Well, so she's stumbling. She's embarrassed. Now of course, bear in mind, her failure to read is not just her, nor is it the-- let me see if I have some of that data. Look at this slide.
These are the reading scores in her high school. This is the percentage of the students at the school who were reading at grade level three or above on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment test. These figures are worse than anything we've seen in Oakland, which of course, was the center of a big national controversy.
So in fact, a lot of schools are systematically failing African American kids in that they haven't really used strategies that help people to do better. So we've got a lot of evidence that's showing that very often the longer African Americans stay in school, the worse they do, compared with students from other populations. And there are some strategies, including linguistic strategies, that can help to improve that.
So some of the other slides that I didn't have here-- this is black/white achievement gap in reading in Miami district. And this is in Oakland. In fact, a very funny thing happened.
I got involved in ebonics controversy. But after I started looking at the facts, I was much less interested in the linguistics and much more interested in the educational tragedy that those schools represented, especially thinking about it happening all across the country. So I've been interviewed by people and they want to just say, well, is it a dialect or a language? And I always say, screw it. Who cares? Let's talk about these figures. And most people were not that interested.
So anyhow, she was a terrible reader. And in fact, you may know-- who is it that gave money for her to go to college? [? Sonja ?]-- yeah, your friend's dad. Hasn't been able to be used. She's not ready to go to college. In fact, she wanted to use some of the money to go to beautician school. And [? Sonja ?] said, unh-unh. That's not what happened. Now he's passing his own judgement.
So there are issues there. And the defense ruthlessly exploited them. And the prosecution was just not good enough to press the case.
And the last case, Florida is a very interesting case. That same Sharese, I was hoping and praying she would go to Florida and study the language thing. We were just down there a couple weeks ago. It is absolutely amazing and interesting, even the varieties of Spanish between the oldes Spanish population, the older Cuban immigrants and the more recent ones. So there's a lot of stuff going on.
But what's striking to me, too, though, is how much she behaves like other speakers of African American English. In general, even though there's variation and varieties of African American English across the country, more striking to me is the amount of similarity.
Why Oakland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Ohio, New York City, and Miami are so similar is striking. And part of that is historical, because until the turn of the 20th century, 90% of the African American population was in the south. You had these big waves that then move out. Well, I have the historians here, so let me be careful.
OK, I promise not to take as long to respond to the next question.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thank you so much for your talk. It was really, really interesting and important. I'm asking a question as a graduate student here. I'm a PhD student in the Science and Technology Studies department. And I'm curious about the space of AAVE or using non-standard English in academia and how you would maybe suggest resisting ideas of using, in particular, academic speak for talking about things. If I'm teaching classes, should I try to engage in the way that I actually speak? I'm just curious if you could speak a little bit about what the role is with that.
JOHN RICKFORD: Well, there are few people who do this very well-- not as much with African American English, although there are some striking examples. Geneva Smitherman, who is one of the first people who worked on-- she had a book I used to use in my course for years called Talkin and Testifyin. If you read that, you'll see that she goes back and forth between some features of African American English and standard English.
H. Sami Alim, who's at Stanford, does a lot of work on rap and hip hop. He does it not as much as some of the-- there's a very interesting relation between, in a sense, the amount of linguistic distance between the varieties. So the Haitian Creole speakers are the most militant. Any Haitians in the audience?
No, not any Haitians? OK. Very militant and powerful-- I remember the first conference I went to, a Creole conference, all the Haitian Creole speakers gave their papers in Haitian Creole. And so the rest of us who didn't speak Haitian Creole-- we had to absolutely commend it as a sociolinguistic and as a power move, even though we couldn't understand a lot of what they were saying.
So Haitian Creole is much more markedly different from standard French, as many varieties of Creole English in the Caribbean are. And then African American English is even less.
So I think it will vary by individual. It will vary by people's linguistic flexibility. But there are more and more people who are talking about it as a kind of move.
There's a phrase that I had in here that you may not have fully caught when I said-- where did I put it? See this little phrase at the bottom here? Help vernacular speakers learn sign language if they want to. It's kind of a truism among many linguists that a speaker shouldn't change. A society should change.
And we believe that passionately. On the other hand, you meet a lot of vernacular speakers who say, look, I can speak the vernacular, but I want to extend my repertoire. And in fact, in talking to Rod Vereen, who is Jeantel's lawyer, I had said at one point, look, if she wants to gain access to standard English as another variety-- which I believe in linguistic versatility. I can speak to you here today in standard English. I can go home and speak in Creole.
But if she wants to do it, instead of just getting a general book about English, I can point to the 15 particular features that really separate her from the standard English speakers. And I can make that move. For several studies, you can make that move more successfully than the other approach.
So that's kind of the opposite of what you're saying. But the two approaches are united in that you want to value linguistic versatility. And you want to give speakers access to linguistic versatility. So speakers who want to push the boundaries of where you use the vernacular, all power to them. And those who want to also have the ability to switch back and forth, all power to them, too.
Any more? Was that a little shorter than the previous answer? Yeah, OK.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for a fantastic talk. I'm from University of Rochester, a few hours away. I come from a background working with indigenous languages in Canada. And the slide that you're on is very similar if you replace African American vernacular with indigenous languages, that applies across the board, too.
So my question to you is, as a representative of a successful academic, from a maybe younger academic, when you say, say yes to work on cases, projects, and such, what worries me that we often, including myself, we work on our own time, on our own dime. And it does not count for tenure, a lot of this work.
So what I wanted to ask you-- I see changes that are magnificent changes and structural changes in Canadian academic system. For example, University of Victoria has a very long standing, huge grant to work on language revitalization programs there locally. And it's at the level of administration and federal level.
But I wonder if you see these shifts in US, for example, because that's a real problem. I've been told many times by my mentors, wait until you get tenure, then work on this. And it's very sad to hear, because I would like to think, well, now that I have the energy, the zeal, maybe idealism that it takes-- I'm told not to do certain things, because they do not count.
So my question is if you see a shift. And the second question, if you do not see a shift, as I think I see in Canada, what can we do to further that shift?
JOHN RICKFORD: To make a shift. OK, good. Thank you. Good point. Very valid point.
I wrote an article years ago-- I forget the name of it. I think it was called "Sociolinguistics in the African American Community." It was published in Language in Society I think 1979. All my papers are on my website-- almost all my papers. So you can go and get them there.
But I talk about my own experience, because I got into linguistics in part because of potential applications to education and so on and so forth. But once I graduated university, especially when I went to Stanford, I did exactly what you were advised to do. I worked more in descriptive theoretical issues.
And in fact, it was only the ebonics controversy of 1996 that I said, damn, people are talking about this stuff. And they're talking nonsense. They don't know what they're talking about. And I kind of got back into some of it, because by that stage, I was tenured. I was full professor and so on.
I think these things are changing. And what's interesting to me is that some of the leading lights in the field are people who are involved. So William Labov, there's no question that he does some of the most theoretical work in the study of language variation and change. And yet, he is very directly involved.
And in fact, people don't know a lot of his involvement. I have an article that's coming out about this month in Journal of Sociolinguistics that details a lot of it, because he has a series of stuff-- readers that kids are using in schools-- that take the vernacular into account that people don't know about.
So Walt Wolfram is another example of somebody who does this. And there's a book that's coming out-- I just wrote the forward for it-- called Sociolinguistics Applications of Impact. And that whole book is about the fact that all around the world-- particularly in Europe, particularly in the US, North America-- you're being judged and evaluated, not just on your theoretical work, but on the impact that your work is having in the real world.
And [INAUDIBLE] going to do a National Science Foundation grant. But when the grant is being considered and when the report is being evaluated, they have several segments that ask specifically about the impact of your work. So it will vary from place to place. I don't want to tell you, to hell with your advisors and so on and so on. And you write me one day, OK, John, I'm washing dishes in Pete's Hot Dog Stand or whatever, because I followed your advice,
But it's changing. Now what I would say is this-- you need both parts. You cannot do this analysis properly if you don't understand what's happening with the language. And I've seen people do that and say the wrong things.
If you're going to be a doctor, you really have to understand how bones work and so on and so forth. It is not enough to say, I love you all people. Come, and I'll help you with your broken bones, although I don't know how to make bones realign.
So you do need the theory. And I think if you do both, you can be a more effective practitioner, you can have a stronger impact, and I think you can help to change the situation. And I think the situation is changing. As I look at the younger scholars coming out, there's more of an interest.
If I look at undergraduates, 80% of undergraduates want to know, how can this knowledge be useful in the real world. And so I think you can be the wave of the future. Do you have a last question? Or is that it, Abbey?
ABBEY: I think we can transition to--
JOHN RICKFORD: Yeah, we have reception, right?
ABBEY: Yes, exactly. So please join me in thanking--
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
When George Zimmerman was tried for the homicide of Trayvon Martin, the testimony of Rachel Jeantel was critical to the prosecution’s case – but was ignored by the jury. According to linguist John Rickford this happened because Jeantel speaks African-American Vernacular English. On Sept. 15, 2016, Rickford presented a University Lecture discussing the potentially devastating consequences caused by mishearings and misjudgments of dialect speakers in courtrooms, police encounters, job interviews and elsewhere.