Yesterday, I posted on Speakout/Truthout about Rachel Jeantel's African American Vernacular English use in the Zimmerman trial/verdict: "Race, Credibility, Communication and Evidence in the Zimmerman Trial, and Beyond", 7/30/2013.
Readers of my Language Log post of July 10 — written before the verdict was announced — may recall that I felt that despite its vernacular character, Jeantel's testimony would be understood by the jury, but that they might not relate to her. Turns out I was both right and wrong. They didn't relate to her, didn't even find her credible, but they (at least Juror B37) also found her difficult to understand.
This case raises an interesting research question about the extent to which African American Vernacular English (and other social/regional dialects of English) are understood by speakers of Mainstream American English or Standard English. We seem to have very little research evidence about this, apart from studies focused on individual grammatical or lexical features, like the study of stressed BIN that I mentioned in my blog, and studies of individual lexical items like cut-eye and suck-teeth.
Here's another bit of anecdotal evidence that makes me question the widespread assumption that people from other dialect backgrounds understand AAVE quite well. Last weekend, my wife and I went to see Fruitvale Station –a powerful new film about the fatal shooting of handcuffed Oscar Grant, a young Black man who was "just trying to get home" on the train after New Year's Day midnight festivities in SFO (). As the credits rolled at the end of this powerful movie, I heard an older white man across the aisle comment that "The acting was superb," to which his wife responded, "But I couldn't understand a word of the dialogue!" To which I thought, "Not a word?!" And I wondered to myself again how much of African American vernacular (especially if fluently spoken) Whites really understand. We really don't know. But think about the implications, if teachers, jurors, job interviewers and so on miss some or all of what students, witnesses, defendants, job seekers say! This is an area crying out for research.
Please let me know if you're aware of any good relevant research on this specific point (intelligibility of AAVE to non-AAVE users), or on intelligibility among speakers of other ethnic, social, and regional varieties, especially of English, but of other languages/dialects as well. I'm as interested in the various methods people use to assess intelligibility reliably, as in their substantive results. I'm aware of Labov's relevant stuff, e.g. the Gating Experiments from the Project on Cross-Dialectal Comprehension reported on in his 2010 Principles of Linguistic Change, vol. 3, as well as his older (1973) paper on "The Boundaries of Words and their Meanings." And of Gary Simons' 1979 monograph on Language Variation and Limits to Communication. What about other studies, especially recent ones, and ones that also take into account attitudes and ideologies and how those affect cross-dialect comprehension?