Rachel Jeantel’s language in the Zimmerman trial

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[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 EnglishLinguistic Inquiry 1:134-136, and William Labov,  1969, “Contraction, deletion, and inherent variability of the English copulaLanguage 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.


  1. Stacey said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

    Thank you! Very interesting.

  2. vicka said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

    The intensifier-suffix "ass" has a wider distribution than AAVE users. In particular Google (my corpus of convenience) notes "stupid-ass decision", as spoken by Nick Fury in the recent "Avengers" movie:

    I recognise the council has made a decision, but given that it's a stupid-ass decision, I've elected to ignore it.

    The Nick Fury character is black, but as you can tell from the rest of the sentence, his idiolect is essentially Queen's English.

  3. Gene Callahan said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

    "but couldn’t prevent his murder"

    Question begging: the trial is over precisely the question of whether this was murder.

  4. Mark P said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

    In my opinion there is not much excuse for a native or long-term resident of the southern US not to understand that kind of speech. It's like an American living in Mexico without learning Spanish. I don't hear it much but the transcriptions rang true to me, and it was obvious to me what she meant.

    @Gene Callahan — I noticed that, too.

  5. majvariola said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 9:23 pm

    Interesting article, but then you go parasite and say her reading skills are the fault of the system. Perhaps she is at the low end of the 'g' distribution?

  6. George Amis said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 10:14 pm

    You seem to distinguish nigger and nigga. In the very racist part of Virginia I was brought up in in the 1940's, there would have been no distinction at all. The older white males in my family pronounced nigger as [nıgǝ]. I was forbidden to use the word, and was expected to say [nigrǝ]. I rarely if ever heard [nigrou] until I was taken to New York.
    So — do you think that there is a difference, and if so, what is it?

  7. Mark P said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 10:22 pm

    In my experience in Georgia, the more "polite" term used by whites was "nigra". If I understand correctly, it is different from "nigga", which I never heard growing up (I'm 63).

  8. Karen B. said,

    July 10, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

    "the younger African American and broader use of [nigga] without a specific racial coding"

    Ahh, the other day I heard two young African American men on the bus here in San Francisco discussing a third person (not present) and one asked, "Was it that black nigga?"

  9. MrFnortner said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    What Mark P has opined is on target, though it may be more like someone living in a US area with a large Hispanic population claiming not to understand the variety of English spoken there. In the deep south, we all understand AAVE language, whatever ethnicity we claim, and to pretend otherwise is dishonest. Some people, especially some commentators, prefer to officially claim not to understand, but that is posturing.

    Regarding 'bin', my child, who is distinctly white, responded to being admonished at five years of age to behave replied that "I am being have." (Pronounced with long a.) It's hard to be stern while laughing.

  10. JS Bangs said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 8:02 am

    I'm confused about this purported distinction between nigga and nigger, because as I understand it both spellings indicate the pronunciation [nıgǝ] in AAVE. Are these variant spellings meant to indicate a lexical distinction within AAVE, or is this a way of distinguishing between in-group and out-group usage?

  11. Mark P said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    @JS Bangs – I can't speak for actual speakers of AAVE, but, in my experience, there is a difference in pronunciation that is big enough to be hard to mistake. My experience is from NW Georgia. There may well be enough of a difference in pronunciation in other parts of the South that my observation might not be universal. Also, I should note that I have heard "nigger" spoken only by whites, and "nigga" only by blacks, and that almost exclusively in recordings of some sort (films etc). The "polite" word used in my region by whites for blacks ("nigra") might be mistaken for "nigga". The word "nigra" isn't heard much any more, except from people significantly older than me (63).

  12. When it comes to Rachel Jeantel, who’s really on trial here? | Word. The Online Journal on African American English said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 8:36 am

    […] Rachel Jeantel's Language in the Zimmerman Trial […]

  13. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    @ Mark P –

    Given that significant parts of, at least, VA, SC, GA, AL, MS and LA are non-rhotic, what is the difference in pronunciation?

    I agree with you on your other point, though. Who doesn't understand AAVE? Even here in England I think most of us under forty understand it – at least in the mainstream forms that reach us via film, music etc.

    Which is not to say that I could correctly describe its aspect system…

  14. JS Bangs said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    Also, I should note that I have heard "nigger" spoken only by whites, and "nigga" only by blacks, and that almost exclusively in recordings of some sort (films etc).

    This suggests to me that these are not different lexemes in the same dialect, but rather variant pronunciations of the same lexeme that acquire their overtones from the race and social position of the speaker. This may have been what John Rickford meant, but I wanted to clarify this against my original, mistaken interpretation that "nigger" and "nigga" could both be used with different meaning by the same speaker.

  15. Rodger C said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

    @Gene Callahan: Rickford should have written "couldn't prevent his death," but it isn't question-begging because the trial outcome wasn't the subject of the discussion.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    Zimmerman's trial is taking place in a city with (per wikipedia) a 30% black population which is the county seat of a county with an 11% black population. I would be surprised if the presumably seasoned prosecutors handling a high-profile homicide trial did not have meaningful prior experience working with AAVE-speaking witnesses and with how to ensure testimony is both understood by and (hopefully) found credible by jurors. (There is also a significant local Hispanic population which can pose similar issues in terms of how to make witnesses understandable and credible over a possible linguistic and/or cultural gap, which I would likewise expect the prosecutors to have experience in handling.)

  17. ChuckRamone said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    In New York, I hear the -a ending of the word all the time being spoken by younger males of many different backgrounds, and you can tell by the tone in which it's delivered when it's not meant in the derogatory sense. When someone is saying it to be offensive, I think the stress tends to be on the first syllable.

  18. Ray Girvan said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    @MrFnortner: Some people, especially some commentators, prefer to officially claim not to understand, but that is posturing

    While it doesn't have as much cultural baggage as with AAVE, this happens with UK English too: you do get people who claim they literally don't understand non-standard forms associated with working-class / underclass speech (for instance, claiming that they'd genuinely perceive the 'double negative' "I don't want no sugar" as the speaker wanting sugar).

    I don't believe them. I'd love to run a hypothetical experiment. Put them in a room with two identical glasses of clear liquid, one containing poison, with instructions that they'll be given truthful information about which to drink. You then send in some folksy character who points to one glass and says, "You don't want to drink none of that." I'd bet no native English speaker would take that as an instruction to drink from the indicated glass.

  19. John R. Rickford said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

    Thanks to Gene Callahan for pointing out I said "murder" not "killing" or something more neutral. That was not intentional. And I'm happy to accept Rodger C.'s correction, and his larger point.

    Thanks to everyone else for their comments. Can't reply on the other issues right now, but hope to be able to do so later on.


  20. Reflections on the public response to Rachel Jeantel’s language | linguistic pulse said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    […] However, the public response to Rachel Jeantel has been quite heated. John Rickford (sociolinguist at Stanford University) detailed some of the response to Jeantel in a guest post at Language Log: […]

  21. P Coons said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

    Rachel's speech was difficult to understand for a number of reasons – not just the AAVE speech patterns. Her mumbling, very low or soft speech, frequent double negatives, and unfamiliar slang made some of her testimony difficult to fathom. Was it 'could of' or 'couldn't'? Those are significant points in that kind of testimony… I did not get the impression that she felt bad that she couldn't prevent Martin's death — I got the impression that she did not want to be publicly confronted by his family, the media, or by the court and attorneys. She did not want to be 'on display' which is perfectly understandable as a young teen. It wasn't her speech which made people doubt her testimony – her attitude, her lies, and reversals on certain testimony. It was a shame that she was castigated for her speech and her education.

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 11, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

    ChuckRamone said:

    When someone is saying it to be offensive, I think the stress tends to be on the first syllable.

    Surely everyone pronounces all versions of the word with the stress on the first syllable?

    By the way, does anyone know if non-rhotic southerners and AAVE speakers tend to have intrusive /r/? Because if not, surely it ought to be straightforward to find out if the two words are distinguished in speech. Whereas someone like me who has intrusive /r/ pronounces them identically in all contexts.

  23. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 12:15 am

    @Pflaumbaum: I believe they lack intrusive /r/, but I believe they also lack linking /r/, such that the two words would nonetheless be pronounced identically in all contexts.

  24. S Gooden said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 1:05 am

    On the use of nigga vs nigger. Check out this recent study by a student at the University of Pittsburgh. Adrienne Washington. (2010). Bad Words Gone Good: Semantic Reanalysis in African American English.

  25. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 4:37 am

    @ Ran

    Ha, thanks! I hadn't considered that possibility. But now you mention it, that's familiar from AAVE, though I hadn't noticed it in southern US accents.

    Some MLE speakers in the UK are going the same route with linking /r/, and also drop the 'linking /n/' in the indefinite article.

  26. Michael W said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    While I suppose almost any word can be twisted into an epithet, I'm still not sure what the force of 'cracker' is when commonly used that way (I've never lived anywhere it's in use).

    But on the subject of both that and *-ass, Chris Rock's jokes about (a racist use of) "cracker-ass cracker" is an interesting example. I can immediately understand the distinction between the two uses of 'cracker', even if I can't describe it (and it looks somehow odd in writing).

    The bit can be watched here [warning for offensive language aside from the racist terms].

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

    I expect that "cracker" is one of many ethnic-reference terms that can be and sometimes is used non-pejoratively by members of the group in question but should be handled with extreme care by non-members. Of course, some taboo/charged vocabulary can remain below the surface. From 8th through 12th grade I went to public schools with a newly-instituted significant racial mix (as a result of federal-court intervention), and I am sure that (some of) the black kids had their own vocabulary of at least semi-pejorative terms for whites they would use among themselves. But because I was not privy to those conversations (and avoided ever being in an altercation/confrontation where one was used to my face), I actually don't know what they were. Whereas by contrast I can (with some effort) recall some of the pejorative terms used for blacks (but, again, not to their face if you didn't want to start a fight) by some of the less-well-mannered white kids, where I suppose the only positive thing to say is that the taboo against the N-word was sufficiently strong that even kids wanting to express fairly unsavory thoughts sometimes needed lexical alternatives.

  28. Faldone said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    Back before the Braves moved to Atlanta the local baseball team was the minor league Atlanta Crackers. In the days of the Negro Leagues there was a common tradition of naming the local Negro League after the local white team with the addition of the word Black, e.g., the New York Black Yankees and the Birmingham Black Barons. The Atlanta team was the Atlanta Black Crackers.

  29. “That’s Retarded, Sir” : Miley Cyrus v. Rachel Jeantel | hiphopocracy said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    […] Rickford's "Rachel Jeantel's Language in the Zimmerman Trial" via […]

  30. Ben Bolker said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

    Tangentially, @Faldone's comment reminds me of my favorite sports team name — the Lady Rams, from Colorado State University.

  31. MSWthinks said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    I would question if her comportment or behavior had anything to do with the fact that many AAVE speakers or Black persons have very little faith in a justice system that doesn't seem to care if they are killed by the thousands daily. In the mind of the AAVE public when there is a non-black "suspect" and a "person of color" victim the judicial system will not benefit them. I am sure we can understand where these feelings and thoughts may come from, and it may explain why she sat there indignant and wanted to be anywhere but there and maybe she felt as if she would have to relive a trauma that many of us have NEVER encountered, yet judge, and maybe she felt as if there was nothing she could day or do that would help her friend, not even getting justice for his death because the system is broken.

  32. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 12, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    Liberal academics (sorry for the near-tautology) go to great pains to bolster any non-white behavior/language/social organization. It is reflexive for them. I read an NYT article awhile backby some self-appointed expert who was so vexed by the Aztecs not having a written language that he maintained that a system of knotted strings in a warehouse was just that. Hamlet, knotted strings, what's the difference among earnest bien pensant?

    This is more of the same. Ebonics is just as sophisticated as Standard English because , well because we say so. And because racism.

  33. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 6:27 am

    @ Mike Stephenson –

    Where did 'sophisticated' come from? McWhorter's comment, if that's what you're referring to, is about the complexity of its rules. Do you have any evidence that they are less complex than those of standard English? Do you know much about the dialect? Because quite a lot of serious scholars have actually, you know, studied it.

  34. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 7:05 am

    It was a "serious scholar" who posited knotted strings in a warehouse as a written language. "Serious scholars" lie routinely on behalf of their pieties. For forty years they have been more beholden to identity politics that to the truth.

    It is my opinion that the John McWhorter of 12 years ago would have agreed with me; originally he was not afraid of being seen as an iconoclast. Lately he's been brought back into the bucket by the other crabs.

    I have seen this sort of thing go on a thousand times. It is not in doubt.

  35. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 7:34 am

    Well, Aztec knots notwithstanding, I still find myself more persuaded by the many years' hard work and thought of superb linguists like William Labov, than by your uninformed and fact-free musings.

  36. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 8:30 am

    The fact that you are not persuaded bothers me not at all. It is in fact further evidence of exactly what I'm talking about.

    There's a streak of cultural Marxism running though academia that mitigates against anyone contradicting silly notions about black vernacular or any other identifiably non-white social artifact or behavior pattern. You just might be called a racist, so why bother?

    The fellow who wrote the piece we're commenting on preferred to concentrate on white prejudice as a reason for discounting Ms Jenteal's testimony rather than her dishonesty. I'm sure he is a "serious scholar."

  37. JBL said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 9:39 am

    Pflaumbaum, DNFTT.

  38. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 10:10 am

    I bet you'd call Steven Pinker a troll if you disagreed with him. He's a rare exception to academic herdthink. He just doesn't have much use for identity politics.

  39. Milan said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    "There’s nothing special about a language that happens to be chosen as the standard for a given country. In fact, if you compare the rules of languages and so-called dialects, each one is complex in different ways. Take for example, African-American vernacular English, also called Black English or Ebonics. There is a construction in African-American where you can say, “He be workin,” which is not an error or bastardization or a corruption of Standard English, but in fact conveys a subtle distinction, one that’s different than simply, 'He workin.' 'He be workin,' means that he is employed; he has a job, 'He workin,' means that he happens to be working at the moment that you and I are speaking."
    Now, you've got three guesses which propagator of academic herdthink said that.

    Have a look in the 17th paragraph: http://bit.ly/T9dljO

  40. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 10:47 am

    Does anyone have any further information on the supposed distinction between nigger and nigga in AAVE? As several have noted, this distinction could presumably only obtain in rhotic varieties of AAVE. One commenter suggested that even in non-rhotic varieties there was a difference in pronunciation, but he didn't describe this distinction. The referenced article also doesn't describe it.

  41. JR said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    Aztecs had knots too? Interesting.

  42. Rodger C said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

    @Mike Stephenson: You're confusing the Aztecs (who did have a written language) with the Incas, and you can't spell Jeantel.

    @Milan: Thanks for the Pinker quote, but I wonder why he thinks the distinction between the simple and consuetudinal present a "subtle" one? I suppose it seems subtle if you're not used to grammaticalizing it, i.e have no acquaintance with AAVE or Irish English.

  43. Ø said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

    @Rodger: I don't think Pinker is arguing that the distinction is more subtle than all the other distinctions that languages allow us to make. He is pointing out that a language which some people might unthinkingly look down on as being something crude can in fact make distinctions in ways those people are not aware of.

  44. un malpaso said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

    Mike Stephenson is not a troll. he just doesn't understand linguistics. Better not to engage him (although I do wonder what he's doing on this page!)

  45. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 13, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

    What's the technical difference between rolling up on a specialist blog to accuse academics in that field, on the basis of no evidence, of systematically lying out of racial prejudice… and trolling?

  46. Arthur Spears said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:25 am

    The questions and doubts expressed above concerning -ass words and the nigga-nigger distinction are dealt with in two writings at arthurkspears.com: "Perspectives: A View of the 'N-Word' from Sociolinguistics" and "African-American Language Use: Ideology and So-Called Obscenity."

  47. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 2:16 am

    I'm by no means a linguistics expert, don't know much more than you'd get from reading The Language Instinct and the The Blank Slate and a handful of others. Fascinating stuff. And it's been 15 years since I read the NYT article, so sorry about my Incas/Aztecs confusion. Maybe one of you could tell me why someone of standing would call a collection of knotted strings a language system. I would be greatly edified.

    Despite my systematic lying and racial prejudice and poor spelling and absence of information and evidence, Pflaumbaum seems threatened. Or is it standard linguist behavior to overstate one's insults in this manner?

    (What exactly were the lies. anyway, systematic or otherwise?)

    As for Steven Pinker, why would you suppose he was about the only Harvard faculty member who objected to the railroading of Larry Summers after Summers mentioned that it might be worthwhile to look at differentials in the math/science aptitudes of men and women? That was a disappointing-but-not-surprising episode.

  48. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 6:08 am


    Your attempts to inject ideological venom into this discussion are clearly failing, so I would stop now and find somewhere else to troll more productively.

    Prof Rickford is making fairly uncontroversial points here, which is that anyone who actually knows about AAVE knows that words like "nigga" or "cracker" do not necessarily have racial connotations. That doesn't mean Trayvon Martin wasn't motivated by racial animus; it means we can't determine that based on his use of those two words alone, which so far seems to be how the defense is arguing.

    Rickford is also making the uncontroversial point that we can't know much about Rachel Jeantel's intelligence or character based on her non-standard dialect. If you had actually read "Language Instinct", you should have learned this, too. What I might dispute is the extent to which we have to blame the "system" for her obvious deficiencies in education and literacy. But again, Rickford makes the uncontroversial point that her lack of education and use of AAVE may negatively affect public perception by stimulating popular prejudices against AAVE and uneducated people in general, prejudices which are not necessarily grounded in any fact-based understanding of AAVE or working class culture.

  49. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 7:05 am

    @ Mike Stephenson –

    Read my comment again. I wasn't accusing you of lying, I was talking about you accusing others of lying:

    "Serious scholars" lie routinely on behalf of their pieties. For forty years they have been more beholden to identity politics that to the truth.

  50. An open letter to whites about the black community and the Trayvon Martin case | { The Molinist } said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 7:50 am

    […] bear and had a friend copy-edit my words because I know all too well the lesson we all learned from Rachel Jeantel: that black speech is suspect and blacks who speack publically on race represent us all. In spite […]

  51. Mark P said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    @Pflaumbaum – sorry I'm so late in replying. You say that significant parts of the old South are nonrhotic, and it's true that many parts are. But many parts are also not. In particular, in my region of Georgia (NW), r's are pronounced. The same is true in many parts of northern Alabama. I noticed many years ago that regions in the southeastern part of the state, reasonably close to the coast, are nonrhotic.

  52. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

    Pflaumbaum –

    Sorry, I misunderstood your reply… thanks for your answer. I won't trouble you again.

  53. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 12:53 pm

    @ Mike Stephenson –

    No problem

    @ Mark P –

    No question. In fact, at least according to the maps at this site, the rhotic areas seem to constitute somewhat more of the South (though I don't know how populated the various areas are).

  54. John R. Rickford said,

    July 14, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    With the Zimmerman verdict now in, there are several new points I’d like to make, in other posts, perhaps in a different forum. But note that several commentators said that Jeantel’s testimony had a strong negative impact on the prosecution’s case. And her language played a significant role in that—not just my opinion, but theirs.

    For now, I’d like to respond to this recurring question that came up in comments on my initial blog, and also on Facebook: Does(n’t) everyone understand AAVE, or do some people just claim they don’t? (Mark P, MrFnortner, Pflaumbaum, Girvan)?

    While we know that linguistic intelligibility CAN be influenced by attitudes (lots of research, beginning with Hans Wolff’s 1959 “Intelligibility and Inter_Ethnic Attitudes” in Anthropological Linguistics 1.3), we should be careful not to over-estimate cross-dialect comprehension or to think that it’s ONLY due to attitude.

    In Principles of Linguistic Change, vol. 3, William Labov reports on the results of several experiments on cross-dialect comprehension involving sound changes, and concludes: “These results run counter to the common illusion that North American English speakers have no trouble understanding other North American dialects of English” (p. 46), and “Dialect differences lead to confusion, and language change compounds it” (p. 85).

    More specific to the case at hand, when Rachel Jeantel said that she had “BIN paying attention,” both defense attorney Bob West and the court stenographer seemed perplexed, perhaps failing to grasp the two key semantic components of this stressed aspect marker—remote initiation of the state, and continuation up to the moment of speech (see Lisa Green 2002, African American English, p. 54 ff.). Back in 1975 (http://www.johnrickford.com/portals/45/documents/papers/Rickford-1975-Carrying-the-New-Wave-into-Syntax.pdf )I tested for comprehension of this marker with 25 Whites and 25 Blacks from various parts of the US: East, West, and South. In response to the initial question of whether “She BIN married” means that she’s still married, 23 Blacks but only 8 whites gave the correct “Yes” answer. But the ethnic/dialect disparity increased once responses to two other BIN sentences and three other questions were considered: 15 Blacks but only one White gave consistent “remote phase” interpretations to this central AAVE aspect marker (p. 109).

    Other instances of cross-dialect misunderstanding involving aspect markers like invariant be and lexical items like cut-eye and suck-teeth or ashy are detailed in our book, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (e.g. p. 95, 207).

  55. kevin said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 1:18 am

    Mike Stephenson you are the most moronic troll I've read in awhile, keep up the miserable work complaining about "cultural Marxism" (lol regressive conservatives who feel oppressed by multiculturalism are the worst, most un-American jerks of them all) or whatever. Go ahead and keep thinking that "For forty years they have been more beholden to identity politics that to the truth", I'm sure all those scientists will stop being blinded by the oh-so-obvious-truth someday! Or maybe you are just a worthlessly close minded tool of white supremacy that will be forgotten in a few more decades?

    Also here is my favorite quote about Pinker's lack of scientific understanding:
    "Pinker doesn’t have a clear idea of the difference between science and journalism, or the one between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements. Science is not about making claims about a sample, but using a sample to make general claims and discuss properties that apply outside the sample."

    taken from this great piece by Nassim Taleb, which has lots of descriptions of his amateur statistics skills.

  56. Mar Rojo said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 2:58 am

    Mike said:

    So you are saying it isn't just as sophisticated (complex) just because you say so? If you are, why would you say so. Based on what?

  57. Mar Rojo said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    Mike, are saying that AAVE isn't as sophisticated (complex) as StEng just because you say so? If you are, why would you say so. Based on what?

  58. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    Do you think doing away with possessive pronouns might qualify as a simplification, for instance?

    My main point is that too many academics are more wedded to identity politics than to truth or accuracy. I don't really believe that there's much doubt about it.

    It's the same impulse that would claim that rape is more about power than sexual urge or that black incarceration rates are high only because of unfair prosecutions. Nonsense, but widely espoused.

    As it was shown conclusively in the Larry Summers affair I mentioned, political correctness routinely trumps academic freedom and basic truth.
    And that's a shame.

  59. pat dade said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    I live in England and watch American made programs – not Florida or America – and can understand what she was saying from the transcripts and spoken excerpts found on the internet.

    "Ax" instead of ask? That isn't even AAVE, Working people of all colours say that in Arkansas. So it is more southern than black? Well maybe. You can also hear it in white working class New Jersey speech – so what is it? Some foreign language that needs a language expert to decipher? Or an excuse for racist remarks?

    Just sayin'

  60. Steve Reilly said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

    Mike Stephenson,

    Shouldn't the use of Bin count as something that makes AAVE a bit more complex than standard English? Not that AAVE lacks possessive pronouns, but if you're going to knock it for simplifications, you should give it credit for the complexities.

    And shouldn't you consider Pinker as PC as the rest of the professors, considering his defense of Black English in The Language Instinct?

  61. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

    Pinker is less PC than 98% of top level academics. He dismisses the more extreme rhetoric of feminists, for instance, as if they were misbehaving children.

    As for his treatment of black vernacular, there are complexities everywhere you look… I have no problem with Pinker reminding/informing readers that black vernacular has rules and structure. So do sparrow songs and prairie dog chatter.

  62. Steve Reilly said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    But now you're being disingenuous. Pinker didn't remind readers that Black English had a structure like prairie dog chatter. His point was that Black English is as sophisticated as standard English. McWhorter of 12 years ago was saying the same. Either they've always been in the grip of this horrible Marxist political correctness, or maybe you're just wrong.

  63. Mark P said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

    @John R. Rickford — I wouldn't claim that no black dialects are hard to understand, especially if words or phrases are taken out of context. However, within the context of a conversation, I think that most natives of the southern US who have any interaction with blacks can understand them. I'm willing to accept the premise that some court workers (the court recorder, for example) are actually busy with their work and that, although obviously having to listen to what is said, can't devote enough attention to the context or meaning of the words or phrases to completely understand non-standard English.

    It may be true that this has changed in more recent times. I suspect that despite the end of legal segregation, there is less routine interaction today than some decades ago between whites and blacks who are most likely to speak like Rachel Jeantel. My father, who was born in 1917, probably had much more of that interaction that I did (born 1950).

  64. John Bieber said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    FTA: 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.

    According to a CNN analyst, the prosecution actually dismissed a black juror because he was a Fox News watcher:


  65. Guest said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

    It would be preferable if you could link to or cite somehow to those instances of castigation of Jeantel's language you mention at the start.

  66. Mar Rojo said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    Mike, you are not

    being clear. Are you saying AAVE is not as.sophisticated as StE?

  67. An open letter to whites about the black community and the Trayvon Martin case | Intrepid Report.com said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

    […] bear and had a friend copy-edit my words because I know all too well the lesson we all learned from Rachel Jeantel: that black speech is suspect and blacks who speack publically on race represent us all. In spite […]

  68. Mike Stephenson said,

    July 17, 2013 @ 12:59 am

    What I'm saying is that most academics would be unwilling to openly admit that AAVE is less sophisticated or operates according to less complicated grammatical rules as long as it can semi-plausibly maintained that the two are on par.

    There's nothing in it for them do so. Likewise, Democrats don't denounce Al Sharpton as a race-baiting hustler/hypocrite. It's obviously true, but there's no future for them in assenting to that characterization, so they pretend he's someone whose views matter..

    Liberal academics ran the president of Harvard off for suggesting, at a closed conference, that math and science abilities may differ between the sexes. Without hesitation they tossed away their two most cherished principles — "truth" and academic freedom — in defense of identity politics orthodoxy.

    Summers was factually correct, but even if he weren't, you would think that academic freedom would allow him to at least make the suggestion. Veritas, indeed.

    Ditto for E.O. Wilson, also at Harvard, who was scorned and attacked by his colleagues for his sociobiology theory. He was right, but even if he weren't, he shouldn't have been treated by Stephen Jay Gould and others as if he were a Nazi eugenicist.

    That's about it, from me.

  69. Mar Rojo said,

    July 17, 2013 @ 7:22 am

    I was hoping for a "What I think about AAVE." grom Mike, it didn't come.

  70. Moral Panic, Language Subdivision | Printculture said,

    July 18, 2013 @ 5:38 am

    […] been a discussion on Language Log about the testimony given in the trial by Trayvon's friend Rachel Jeantel, the last person to […]

  71. Tims Quinn said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 8:44 am

    And in the middle and upper classes of the Mississippi Delta, in the 50's, no one in good standing used the word "nigger". I was spanked for using it, my mother used "nigra", and the ninety-two-year-old lady across the street from where I now live still pronounced the word as Mother did.

  72. Link love: language (56) | Sentence first said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 10:24 am

    […] Rachel Jeantel’s language in the Zimmerman trial. […]

  73. Emerson Swan said,

    October 14, 2013 @ 11:08 pm

    The treatment of Rachel Jeantel by the press was some of the most embarrassing, disingenuous crap I have ever heard. Those lame-ass crackers make me absolutely ashamed to be a white male. But what can you expect from news-tainment? The talking heads are mostly empty.

  74. akash said,

    March 5, 2014 @ 1:25 am

    Suspect that despite the end of legal segregation, there is less routine interaction today than some decades ago between whites and blacks who are most likely to speak like Rachel Jeantel.

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