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