[Below is a guest post by John Rickford.]
The defense plans to rest in the Florida trial of George Zimmerman today, and arguments are raging about whether he will be found guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin or not.
In the case of Rachel Jeantel, however, the 19-year old prosecution witness whose testimony on June 26 and 27 went on longer (5 to 6 hours) and generated more commentary in the media than any other witness, the GUILTY verdict is already in.
On talk shows and social media sites, people castigated her "slurred speech," bad grammar and Ebonics usage, or complained that, "Nobody can understand what she's saying."
As was true in the wake of the 1996 Oakland Ebonics controversy (cf. the “Ebonics Humor” chapter in John R. and Russell J. Rickford, 2000, Spoken Soul), a torrent of invidious commentary was quickly unleashed, masquerading under the cover of wit and presumably-shared linguistic prejudice.
Some of it was translation humor: “Love to hear her give a Shakespeare recital. ‘To beez or nots to beez, dats wat I'zz bee saying, jack’.”
But a lot more involved grotesquely racist, misogynistic and dehumanizing attacks on this young woman, devoid of any sensitivity to the fact that she was testifying about the murder of a friend she had known since elementary school, and that she was racked by guilt that she’d been been talking to him by cell phone moments before he died but couldn’t prevent his murder.
In language even more vicious than that in the “Ebonics Olympic Games” of 1997 (Spoken Soul, p. 217-18), Jeantel was compared to “a junkie,” an “animal,” and “the missing link between monkeys and humans.” One commentator opined that “You could swap her out for a three-toed sloth and get the same witness value and response.”
Another, eager to demonstrate that ignorance and viciousness were equal opportunity traits, fumed that: “She has to be the most, ignorant, ghetto, uneducated, lazy, fat, gross, arrogant, stupid, confrontation Black bitch I've ever seen in my fucking life. Yes, I said it . . . and I'm Black.”
Not everyone was this negative, fortunately. In TV appearances and in a commentary on Times.com, linguist John McWhorter explained that Jeantel’s “Black English … has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley.” I tried to do the same in a short segment on the National Public Radio program, Here and Now. But you’ll notice from the comments on these sites that we both attracted critics and detractors.
There were linguistically positive and insightful blog posts by non-linguists too, like this one by Syracuse University professor of Rhetoric and Writing Kevin Browne,, and this one by writer Marina Bolotnikova.
For the record, Jeantel, like many working class African Americans, shows asymmetric linguistic competence. She does understand standard English, as she emphasized in an exchange with defense attorney Don West.
But she often speaks fluent African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, and the court stenographer, attorneys and jury members may have missed crucial elements in her testimony.
Jeantel complained to West, “You cannot hear me that well, and “You are having trouble hearing me.” And it wasn’t just because of her sometimes soft delivery. As she noted, “It’s how I speak.”
Speakers of AAVE and linguists who have studied this distinctive variety for more than 50 years, knew exactly what Jeantel meant when she used systematic AAVE features like:
– Stressed BIN, as in I was BIN paying attention, sir, meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am still paying attention.”
– Preterit HAD, ax, and inverted did in embedded sentences, as in He had ax me did I go to the hospital “He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.” [The use of the pluperfect form where other varieties use a simple past or preterit was first discussed by Stanford undergrad Christine Theberge.]
– Absence of auxiliary IS: He ø trying to get home, sir.
– Absence of possessive and third present s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family.”
Did these and other features cause lawyers and jury members to literally misunderstand her? It’s hard to tell, except in one case where the transcript of her April 2012 interview with prosecuting attorney Bernie De la Rionda has her saying that she “couldn’t hear Trayvon” saying “Get off,” while the testimony, played in court, sounds more like “I could, an’ it was Trayvon.” Jeantel’s subsequent remarks substantiate the latter interpretation. (The transcript of that interview is here, and you can see and hear courtroom cross examination about it here.)
This case aside, it’s more likely that Jeantel was understood as clearly as Moses Wright, the Mississippi sharecropper and preacher whose Chicago cousin Mamie sent her 14 year old son Emmett Till to visit Wright in Mississippi in August 1955.
Till was brutally murdered by J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant after going to a local store with friends to buy sodas and bubble gum. After their trial, Milam and Bryant brazenly and without prosecution published a full confession in Look magazine. 1/24/1956.
Asked in court if he could identify the man with a gun who took Emmett from his house, Rev. Wright said “Yes, sir!” and “with an act of courage and defiance … pointed a gnarled finger at white J.W. Milam and announced in a loud, clear voice, “Thar he!” (From Mark Gado’s riveting account).
Now Wright’s construction, with the copula missing in clause-final position, is ungrammatical in modern AAVE and every known variety of English today. (See, among others: Harold King, 1970, “On blocking the rules for contraction in English” Linguistic Inquiry 1:134-136, and William Labov, 1969, “Contraction, deletion, and inherent variability of the English copula” Language 45:715-762.) And one might, as with Jeantel’s testimony, wonder whether it was transcribed correctly.
But there is no question about whether it was understood. And Wright’s testimony, like Jeantel’s, demonstrates that the vernacular CAN be used to speak justice and truth, just as standard English can be used for injustice and lies. As James Baldwin noted in 1979 (in “Black English: A Dishonest Argument” in G. Smitherman, ed., Black English and the Education of Black Children and Youth):
We should not forget that it was in perfect standard English, in the Dred Scott decision, that the court said that Black people had no rights that the White man must respect.
Indeed, the fact that Jeantel’s testimony was so vernacular might itself be taken as evidence that it was likely closer to the truth, especially given this very apt comment (given that Jentel’s mother is a native creole French speaker from Haiti, and that she herself speaks Creole, Spanish and AAVE) from Robert Hall’s 1966 Pidgin and Creole Languages (p. 133):
For the normal, unpretentious Haitian, use of Creole is the symbol of truth and reality, and French is the language of bluff, mystification, and duplicity.
Note, however, that Wright’s 1955 testimony in the Emmett Till trial did not win friends or influence people in the courtroom. The all-white jury delivered a “Not guilty” verdict in the case, “some even stopping to shake hands or offer congratulations” as they filed past Milam and Bryant.
Despite the obvious improvements in the socio-political climate between the 1950s and today, it is not likely that Jeantel’s testimony will change the outcome of the Zimmerman trial either. Whether they understood her literally or not, Jeantel’s vernacular, her eye rolls, stares and palpable “attitude” may make it difficult for the jury to relate to and be convinced by her, as some media pundits have suggested.
Which would be sad, because this reluctant witness represents the closest proxy to testimony by Trayvon Martin himself—something we’ll never get to hear or pick apart.
In this already long post, I crave your indulgence to make a couple closing linguistic points and half of a literacy/education point that I’ll develop more fully in another time and (perhaps) place.
Much has been made of the fact that Jeantel, in her courtroom testimony, quoted Trayvon Martin as referring to George Zimmerman, of mixed White and Latino ancestry, as a nigga (“The nigga is still following me”), and a creepy-ass cracker. Defense attorney Don West, in particular, used these terms to show that it was Trayvon, not Zimmerman, who “introduced” racism into the altercation.
But Arthur Spears’ 1998 paper on “African-American Language Use: Ideology and so-called obscenity” (in Mufwene, Rickford, Bailey and Baugh, eds. African American English) rebuts West’s charge and is insightful with respect to both terms.
About nigga (as distinct from nigger), Spears observes (p. 239) that:
It is currently used by younger African Americans (roughly under 30) and some non-African Americans to mean ‘male’; it applies to males of any ethnicity in much the same way as does guy.
So, far from being racist (note that it was being used of Zimmerman), Trayvon’s use of nigga exemplifies the younger African American and broader use of the term without a specific racial coding, a use already previewed in Clarence Major’s 1994 Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang, and in Geneva Smitherman’s 1994, 2000 Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner.
And Trayvon’s use is clearly quite distinct from and preferable to the use of nigger by Emmett Till’s murderer J. W. Milam, who in 1956 told the Look reporter:
I like niggers — in their place — I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live.
While Jeantel’s testimony about the N-word in the Zimmerman trial has garnered a lot of public comment and attention, it isn’t generally recognized that creepy-ass cracker is part of a “productive morphological process” in what Spears characterizes as African American “Uncensored Mode.” Examples include: triflin’-ass woman, jive-ass fool, fine-ass muthafucka, pretty-ass self (from Marcyliena Morgan, 2013), and bottle-ass pine (from Richmond Wiley, Daufuskie Island, S. Carolina, in a 1970 story to me about “puttin’ on ole massa).
Of these “Ass words”, which Major’s (1994) Juba to Jive had simply described as “intensive” Spears (234-5) notes that while the element preceding –ass can be an adjective, noun, or other word-class (even a full VP like ain’t-got-no-rap-ass), it “must be followed by a noun” (jive-ass fool is fine but *He’s a jive-ass is ungrammatical). [(myl) For discussion of this construction's adoption into vernacular English at large, see "Hyphen", xkcd #37; Daniel Siddiqi, "The English intensifier ass", 2011; "Root haughtiness", LL 8/20/2011; "Is it a prosodic-ass constraint?", LL 8/25/2011.]
Spears also observes that the A-words (if we will) are not inherently negative or positive. They “are more about poetics, ways of positioning oneself in the world and emotive reactions and attitudes” (p. 237). But they do have some lexical as distinct from discourse meaning, and “that meaning is always carried by the formative to which -ass is attached." This explains why creepy-ass cracker comes across as negative to everyone (despite the Dictionary of American Regional English evidence that cracker is common in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas but not everywhere), and pretty-ass self does not.
Finally, my half-point about literacy and education. Expressive though Jeantel is orally and in terms of facial expression and gestures (her cut-eyes/eye rolls sometimes constituted searing cross-examinations of West himself), her reading skills do appear to be considerably below grade level. This may have severely limited her ability to read the transcripts of her earlier interviews that West put before her in the courtroom, and contributed to the fierce attitude that simmered beneath her words and gestures.
The fault, however, must be placed primarily on the deficiencies of urban education in Florida and across the US, especially in school districts that are primarily made up of working class students of color. This was one of the larger implications of the Ebonics controversy in 1996-97 that the public never seemed to grasp or do anything about, and it’s a larger implication of the Zimmerman trial that dwarfs the issue of whether he walks or not.
Stay tuned for the other half of this point, which I’ll make with school statistics on reading and some comments about what I think linguists and other concerned scholars can do to help.