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When it comes to Rachel Jeantel, who’s really on trial here?

July 10, 2013


When Rachel Jeantel stepped up to to testify at the trial for the shooting death of her childhood friend, Trayvon Martin, lawyers and later the American public had more to say about her language, mannerisms and appearance than her critical testimony. Ms. Jeantel is of Haitian American descent, and to our knowledge, speaks Haitian Creole, Spanish and African American English. In the days since her court appearance there has been such a strong reaction from the public with regard to THE WAY she speaks, we decided it was necessary to provide some links that are helpful in contextualizing her use of language. Make no mistake about it, we at Word. feel that the  Rachel Jeantels of the world should not be silenced from speaking their truths, especially when confronted with misplaced ideologies and attitudes about the languages that they speak.

Check out these links for more information:

Rachel Jeantel’s Language in the Zimmerman Trial

“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.”

Rachel Jeantel’s Language is English — It’s Just Not Your English

“Virtually anyone who was born and raised in the United States can speak perfect English without interference from any other language, no matter where their parents came from. The suggestion that Jeantel’s language is peppered with influence from Haitian Creole and Spanish implies that there is something off about her English. There’s nothing wrong with speaking imperfect English, but that doesn’t describe Rachel Jeantel, and to suggest otherwise misses — you might argue even reinforces — the real injustice at the heart of her cross-examination.”

Rachel Jeantel Explained, Linguistically

“Yet one problem Jeantel is not having is with English itself. Many are seeing her as speaking under some kind of influence from the Haitian Creole that is her mother’s tongue, but that language has played the same role in her life that Yiddish did in George Gershwin’s – her English is perfect. It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley. They’re just different rules.”

Language on Trial: Rachel Jeantel (Interview with John Rickford)

“She [Jeantel] used a lot of the classic features of African-American English, which you can find spoken especially by working-class African-Americans almost every day. I don’t think most of these caused active problems of understanding in the courtroom, But I think they probably affected the jury’s and the public’s ability to respect and believe her testimony and relate to her. Relatability is very important.”

Dark-Skinned and Plus-Sized: The Real Rachel Jeantel Story

“The unique quality of her black vernacular speaking style became hypervisible against the backdrop of powerful white men fluently deploying corporate, proper English in ways that she could not do.  The way they spoke to her was designed not only to discredit her, but to condescend to and humiliate her. She acknowledged this show of white male power by repeatedly punctuating her responses with a curt but loaded, ‘Yes, Sir.'”

When You Make Fun of Rachel Jeantel, You Make Fun of Us

“Judging by the lightening quick critiques of Ms. Jeantel’s quips and gestures, no one had any problems understanding her. However, what many African Americans in our social media communities secretly wanted was for Ms. Jeantel to code switch, remove the vernacular from her vocabulary directly rooted in this young woman’s experience to make her more appealing to Whites, and less ’embarrassing’ to the guardians of acceptable Blackness.”

Also see:

Why Black People Can Use the N-Word: A Perspective

Rhetoric and the Stoning of Rachel Jeantel

‘Black Girl’ Stereotypes in the Zimmerman Trial

The Secret History of the Word ‘Cracker’

Perspectives: A View of the ‘N-Word’ from Sociolinguistics

The N Word: Its History and Use in the African American Community

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2013 5:55 am

    As a reader, the saddest part of this story to me is the idea that the entire focus of the trials utter horror was completely changed when Ms. Jeantel spoke. The bottom line is, no matter the tongue in which someone spoke should not have overshadowed the tragedy at hand.

    Sadly, I understand the Black Americans that wanted Ms. Jeantel to code-switch but NOT to make her mother-tongue secondary but unfortunately so that this minor piece of the story wouldn’t for a split second over-shadow the actual trial.

    To think people’s ignorance could supersede the actual terrors of this trial even for a second is simply exemplary of the world in which we live in, and the values that we hold to be important.

  2. December 8, 2013 3:37 pm

    If Jeantel is a public figure, then I don’t think it was proper for anybody to have waited till that day of defense before criticizing her language, mannerisms and appearance. What has language (dialect) and Grammar got to do with court defense of murder?
    Did she not make meaning? For me, I think that was just a nice opportunity for the people to boycott her defense at the court. Yes,”Relatability is very important” but did the Jury and the public not understand the kind of English she spoke? Be it Haitian Creole or otherwise? Does the use of a Creole or African American English cause misunderstanding? if yes, HOW? I believe she also used the classic features of the African American English spoken by working – class African Americans? I also believe her witty remarks and gestures posed no problem for her to be understood.
    They wanted her to code switch and she did not, did that mean she couldn’t make herself understood? Did that also mean she was not appealing or pleasant in her speech? Do pure white Americans understand or speak some level of African American English? If yes, why worry Jeantel with language? I sense some discrimination here. People like jeantel should not be played down or looked down upon, but be allowed to flow in their natural sense for the good of America and the world.

  3. September 24, 2016 7:39 pm

    Thanks for this amazing website: I’m using a lot of articles in my high school english class!

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