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Linguistic prejudice is a real prejudice (and has real consequences)

October 30, 2013

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There’s been a lot of talk in the media and public discourse about racial discrimination and justice lately. Despite killing Trayvon Martin—an unarmed black teenager—George Zimmerman (who is white and hispanic) walked away a free man due to Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. But what flew under the radar for most was the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, the prosecution’s star witness. We’ve written a bit about Jeantel before, but we’d like it further discuss some of the issues raised by the reactions to her testimony. As soon as Jeantel’s testimony began, so did the criticism, and much of it was because of her language. She was called uneducated, unsophisticated, and difficult to understand. Defense lawyers even asked her if she was indeed a native speaker of English. But what linguists knew and tried to argue was that Jeantel was a native English speaker—it just wasn’t the variety of English that is seen as mainstream or standard, and Jeantel was being subjected to an intense form of linguistic discrimination which may have affected the degree to which she was seen as a credible witness.

The language varietiy Rachel spoke on the stand is called African American English. African American English is a dialect of English that is spoken primarily by African Americans in the U.S. It goes by many names really—some of them neutral (Black English, Ebonics, African American Vernacular) and some of them derogatory (ghetto talk, bad English, slang). The name African American English can be misleading, since not all African Americans speak it, and not all people who speak it are African American. With accents and dialects there’s no biological connection between the way someone speaks and the color of their skin. What matters more is who someone grew up with, their peers, and what groups they want to be identified with.

Many people believe that there is a correct way to speak English, and anything that deviates from this way of speaking is incorrect, lazy or unintelligent, and has no rules or structure. This belief is called Standard Language Ideology, and it has far-reaching consequences. Because of this widespread ideology, dialects like African American English become marginalized for reasons that have little to do with the structure or complexity of the dialect itself. In fact, African American English has its own grammar and usage rules, many of which are not transparent to those unfamiliar with the dialect. One example: African American English has a marker ‘be’ that can be used before a verb to say that something happens continuously or habitually. So in African American English, you can say “Tonya be riding her bike”, which would be roughly equivalent to Standard English “Tonya rides her bike regularly”. Now if you wanted to turn that statement into a question, like “Tonya rides her bike regularly, doesn’t she?”, would you know how to?

Try it.

Tonya be riding her bike, __________?

a) ain’t she

b) don’t she

c) be she

d) will she

If you guessed (b), you’re right, and you probably have had extensive contact with speakers of African American English or you might be a native speaker yourself. If you don’t know the answer, African American English is probably not a variety you grew up speaking, so naturally you don’t exactly know its rules. Now imagine you had to answer questions all the time in a language variety that you didn’t grow up speaking. Seems like it would be a pretty frustrating experience, and for millions of young people in the U.S., it is. Because African American English is not recognized as a “legitimate” dialect of English in the U.S. school system, many of its younger speakers find they have trouble learning to read, write and even speak in standard English, a variety that is not their home language. For a good primer on the challenges that African American English speakers may face in school, check out this video from the PBS’ documentary, Do You Speak American?.

Now I know what you’re thinking: while it may not be fair that African American English (and its speakers) gets stigmatized, this is the reality, and until it changes the only way for its speakers to move ahead academically and get jobs that pay well is to speak the “standard” variety of English. You may be correct about this. But numerous studies have shown that the best way for young speakers to learn Standard English–assuming they don’t get much exposure to it outside of school–is by using their home language (African American English) to help teach the school language (Standard English). This method is frequently used in bilingual education to teach English as a Second Language. In order for it to work here, we must start from a place of acknowledging the legitimacy of African American English as a rule-based, systematic language variety in its own right.

Marginalized dialects (like African American English) do not have anything inherently “bad” or “wrong” about them, standardized dialects don’t have anything inherently “good” or “right” about them. They’re simply different varieties. The reason that a dialect become standardized or stigmatized usually has to do with social and historical forces, so that the dialect of those in power becomes the “standard” way of speaking. While most people realize it’s not okay to show prejudice against someone because of the color of their skin, a large proportion of the same people fail to recognize that it’s not okay to show prejudice against someone for the way that they speak. Linguistic prejudice is still prejudice, and in some cases it behaves as a proxy for more overt forms of racism. Ultimately what we find is that whether it be in the courtroom or the classroom, linguistic prejudice can have real consequences, an issue which is magnified by the fact that many don’t even recognize its existence.

Many thanks to Sam Roberts for providing feedback on this post.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2013 7:14 am

    I think linguistic discrimination should be given enough attention than we see today by everybody concerned. Biblical and Religiously, we indict and insult God in his wisdom to have created human beings with different languages. Why should the type of language one speaks be used to discriminate against him or her? Rachel was treated like a culprit instead of a lay concerned person helping in the discharge of delivering justice and fairness in the trial. For the most important thing in communication and using language is to carry our intentions and ideas with understanding but not the style or accent used. That only adds beauty to what is said.The lawyers in the cross- examination should have looked at the substance of what Rachel testifies but not discrediting her because of her ethnic or racial and linguistic background. Also the Court or Judge should have called the lawyers to order in the cross-examination of the witness instead of allowing that course. At the end of it all, justice is only achieved when witnesses, plaintiffs and accused get a fair hearing. Everybody should stand against linguistic discrimination because every language or dialect is capable of achieving communicative functions.

    • Emmanuel Asamoah permalink
      December 4, 2013 3:34 pm

      David I think one fact you have not realized is the fact that it is possible the lawyers, judges and co did not really understand what exactly she was speaking and not only for the fact that she wasn’t speaking standard American English. I am getting an impression that unless you have had extensive contact with the language it is difficult to really make meaning of what a speaker says. In arguing in line with you I think what they could have done was to get someone who speaks ebonics as well as standard American English to do the interpretation. I am not saying the lady was treated fairly but we also have to look at this perspective.

  2. Faustina Naapane permalink
    November 27, 2013 8:40 am

    Linguistics prejudice is as bad if not worse than prejudice against color,it saddens my heart after reading this article that someone is insulted using such words as uneducated,and unsophisticated just by speaking her own language.These words should have rather been used on those using them..They should have known that there is linguistic diversity and the fact that one does not speak another’s language does not make his inferior.How will the world be if we were all to speak one language?.The different dialects,skin color and languages that we have should be seen as things adding to the beauty of the world and makes the world an interesting place.Rather than criticing Jeantel’s language they should have employed an interpreter.But why must it be the African Americans who should learn the supposed standard Eenglish and not the other way round?It is unfortunate that people are discriminated against based on skin color and dilect when that does affect their output interms of perfomance or capability.I wish to suggest that,if there should be any form of discrimination at all ,it should be on the grounds of abilities,capabilities or intelligence and not linguistic discrimination which the individual does not in anyway contribute to.

  3. November 28, 2013 6:15 pm

    I am particularly sad about the way African American English is being tongue-lashed. Are the CHOMSKYS and KRASHENS not there to educate the perpetrators of this hideous act about the naturalness of Language? In any case, are African Americans not a major contributor to the development of America? Americans should remember that not too long ago Latin was the world’s most prestigious Language but what happens to it today? Is it not a dead language? this is my humble comment.But check it! Standard American English feels threatened by the growth and spread of African American English.

  4. Emmanuel Asamoah permalink
    December 4, 2013 4:09 pm

    I Think It is about time people differentiated between colour and brain. Just that someone doesn speak a particular language doesn’t mean he or she is a none entity. I think this phenomenon is not only peculiar to the United states but also to communities where a particular language or ethnic group dominates others in terms of numbers. When speakers of the dominant language especially controls the community in terms of politics, trade and the like then it creates a problem. More so when the minority group has a history where they have been slaves to the majority as we have in the United states. This not withstanding, there is the need to recorgnise that no matter what language a person speaks that is what God has given to him/her and has nothing to do with his or her intellect . A language could be dominant in a particular place at a particular time but cannot remain so forever especially when there is change in time and location like has happened to Latin now as sited by Abdul Moomin. when the situation changes and your language becomes the minority how would you like to be treated? This is a question we should all ask ourselves and act accordingly.

  5. Karehina Mango permalink
    December 10, 2013 11:48 am

    African American English is uneducated, unsophisticated, and difficult to understand??? How diminishing!!
    Its sad how ignorant people are about African American English and issues about diversity. We are different people, with different cultures therefore, we speak different languages. I think that we need to be revolutionary with they way we think and accommodate people no matter the languages they speak. This article shows clearly the lack of knowledge of the majority about language diversity. Unfortunately that is how the world works.

  6. Genevieve Owurasah permalink
    December 12, 2013 1:48 pm

    Since when did speaking one’s language become a crime? Jeantel only spoke the language she knew “African American English.” I am very disappointed about how Jeantel’s case was handled. In any case, it was the issue that needed to be judged not the language she spoke. I wonder how the world can let justice prevail if we are so linguistic prejudiced and ignore the fact and the beauty of language diversity. Jeantel was treated unfairly and my heart bleeds for that.

  7. mawutor permalink
    December 13, 2013 2:04 pm

    I must say it’s about time every language is treated equally. Looking at the history of African Americans, it is just proper that, they have their own dialect of the American English. Whether SAE OR AAE, the most important issue is that AAE has a communicative function just as the SAE does. No language is inferior. That MUST be the bottom line and nothing else. Even in the U.K there are many varieties of Englishes. The fact that one speaks a different variety does not call for discrimination whatsoever. The treatment meted out to Rachel Jeantel by people who should know better is rather unfortunate and must be condemned in no uncertain terms.

  8. Anastasia Nuworsu permalink
    December 13, 2013 2:41 pm

    with regard to reactions to Jeantel’s testimony, and she being referred to as ‘uneducated’ and unsophistication’, I would like to ask if a person, irrespective of their age, gender or color must be sophisticated before they can communicate? I believe the main purpose of the evolution of language is for communication, so must a person be complex in order to do this? well my answer is no because children who have not fully developed their speech abilities communicate their needs to their parents and they are well understood and their needs attended to, so it is with animals which do not have oral speech, they communicate with gestures. please give the world a break about AAE not being a Standard English.

  9. Brittany Botts permalink
    December 13, 2013 6:21 pm

    As a native African American English speaker, I had never even heard of my own language. No one had ever validated the way in which I spoke with my friends and family, and therefore I assumed it was improper and incorrect. My own mother would charge me ten cents every time I pronounced words outside of Standard English, although she too would do the same sometimes. I was taught to code switch, but when my mother realized that I was not successful at the practice, she forced me to stop speaking African AMerican English altogether. Because it was such a normal and natural part of my existence, I never really could stop speaking in my most familiar dialect. So, I ended up paying my mother a lot of money in my childhood. Today, as a college student at an Historically Black College, I realize even more that my own people devalue a language that is inherently their own. It is a language that the majority of people at my college speak, yet when asked how they feel about “Ebonics”, I am sure most of them would turn up their nose and claim that it is improper or incorrect. They speak the language themselves without even recognizing it because it has never been a topic of discussion. It was just always understood for us that we needed to do our best to turn our “professional voice” on and off. Before taking the African American English course, I had not realized the ways in which ideology around my language had oppressed me. I experienced the real prejudice against African American English in every community I have belonged to, from the predominantly white schools to the predominantly black family members, from speakers of the language to non speakers of the language. I can recall numerous incidents when I spoke in front of a large group of people, and was later made fun of for saying things like “I be hungry” or “Ion know about yall but..” Since taking this class, however, I have come to embrace the way in which I speak.

  10. Keziah John Paul permalink
    December 13, 2013 7:02 pm

    While linguistic prejudice is still a form of oppression, it is still considered a responsibility on the behalf of black Americans to know when and how to code switch, and to know when doing so will be to our benefit of detriment. In the case of Rachel Jentel, it is completely unfair that she was obviously discriminated for her speech, however, it is all the more unfair that her lawyer allowed her to speak in her “mother tongue” to the extent that she did. While it is true that everyone’s mother tongue should be recognized, the reality is, they are not. Certainly not by white folk or white American opinion. Why was Rachel allowed to testify, her lawyer knowing full well that she would not be heard? That she would not be taken seriously? This is the true tragedy.

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