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Language and the Law

Jul 22, 2013

Did a key witness in Trayvon Martin's case talk funny, or could we all use some education?

The George Zimmerman trial in the United States of America has shown a country in deep divide. John Olstad looks at how reactions to the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, friend of Trayvon Martin, demonstrates the cultural attitudes of a nation, and how we all need to learn a little respect.


Two weeks ago, a jury of five white women found that neighborhood block-watch captain George Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed 17-year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. There are any number of issues that arise from talking about this tragedy, race and stand your ground laws in the US being the most obvious. But the issue that troubles me now as a linguist and someone who grew up in a multiracial household in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the language shaming of Rachel Jeantel, the friend Trayvon had been speaking to minutes before he was killed.

Rachel Jeantel giving evidence

At the trial, Rachel testified for more than five hours and as far as I can tell, she is a well-adjusted 19-year old. The only reason for pointing this out is the glut of ugly misguided comments by rightwing pundits and internet commenters barking otherwise. I won’t reproduce any of them here, but let’s just say they show just how far we haven’t come in terms of racism and sexism. What they also reveal, is the uninformed attitudes people hold about non-standard varieties of English; namely, that speaking a non-standard variety reveals a lack of intelligence and credibility.

But all language varieties are systematic and rule-governed. There is nothing inherently better about standard varieties of English communicatively speaking. There is no causal link between speaking non-standard varieties English—which are spoken by a majority of English speakers in the world—and levels of intelligence or even levels of education. The only difference is which variety happens to hold cultural dominance. The fact that Rachel Jeantel speaks what is called Black English or African American Vernacular English only informs that she grew up around other black children.

Presumably, Juror B37 doesn’t know any of that as evidenced by her comments in an interview with Anderson Cooper:

“I didn’t think [her testimony] was very credible. […] But, I felt very sorry for her. She just didn’t want to be there and she was embarrassed by being there because of her education and her communication skills, that she wasn’t a good witness. […] A lot of times she was using phrases I had never heard before, or what they meant.”

So who is the one that is lacking education here? Why is there the assumption that Rachel was embarrassed? Why is there the assumption that she is lacking in communication skills? Is it because she didn’t do her best impression of a white person? It would be bizarre for Rachel to mimic a way of speaking that is unnatural to her. Or at least it should be. So where do these attitudes come from?

Growing up my mother used to constantly ‘correct’ my speech as her mother undoubtedly did to her. But I don’t really understand how she could live in our household and still think there actually is some ‘correct’ way to speak. She spoke some form of Standard English, but my foster brothers Harold, Joe, and Dan spoke Black English, and I spoke a mix between the two.

I can remember asking my friend Will, who was more like my big brother, why he would talk to my mother one way and then say something to his other friends on the phone like, ‘Is you fin to go?’ I was curious one time, so I asked him, “What’s that you’re saying, fitting to? fixing to?” “Naw,” he said, “it’s fin to.” I can’t be sure, but this interaction is probably what started me down the path to becoming a linguist in the first place.

As a university tutor in my hometown, a city which is roughly 40% black and 37% white, I still had students asking me, “Do they just never learn how to talk right?” I pull up a chair when this happens, “Listen up, gang.” As a university tutor in Newcastle and Ourimbah, NSW, I’ve pulled up a chair on more than one occasion as well to discuss non-standard varieties in Australia.

So what do I tell them? Well, the goal is to convey that, scientifically speaking, non-standard varieties of English such as the English spoken by Rachel Jeantel and the ‘proper English’ they’ve been taught are equally communicative. I go over the differences and point out that both have a rule system that must be followed to speak convincingly.

But then, I don’t see why there should need to be that justification. So I end up trying to teach respect. If they have a student that speaks a non-standard variety of English, they need to understand that that student is therefore competent in understanding at least two versions of English: the version they speak at home and other safe environments, and the one forced upon them when listening to you. Respect that.

The alarmingly pervasive idea that standard English equates to ‘good grammar’ and non-standard English equates to ‘bad grammar’ is false and exclusionary. When it’s used in conjunction with intelligence and credibility of a young black woman, it’s reminiscent of the faulty scientific racism of The Bell Curve. But language shaming is currently acceptable behavior in the status quo. It is one of the last bastions of unabashed racism and classism.

So, I cringe when Zimmerman defense attorney Don West says to Rachel, “My question is: when someone speaks to you in English, do you believe that you have any difficulty understanding it because it wasn’t your first language?” It is clear that West knows Rachel speaks and understands English perfectly well. His willful ignorance is menacing. “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” And then there’s a pause and with an icy stare she says, “I understand. I understand you.”

Early on when the news of Trayvon Martin’s killing was fresh, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera announced his solution to saving all the Trayvon Martins: don’t wear hoodies, don’t dress like a typical black teenager—the same type of patronizing, victim-blaming advice that is afforded to survivors of sexual assault. We don’t need to educate women on how to not get sexually assaulted by wearing less revealing clothing or some other nonsense; we need to teach men not to sexually assault. When it comes to language we don’t need to educate Rachel Jeantel on ‘communication skills’, we need to teach ourselves respect.

John Olstad (@bulletines) is an American living in Australia currently completing a PhD in linguistics at the University of Newcastle.


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18 thoughts on “Did a key witness in Trayvon Martin’s case talk funny, or could we all use some education?

  1. Chris Williams

    Dear FULLY (at 16)

    If the point of the article was to argue that people without formal English language skills can be unfairly stigmatised as stupid, then, yes, the article was often ‘off point’.

    It was almost inevitable it would get that way by using Jeantel as the key evidence for this particular point. This might have been avoided somewhat had the article employed some pretty big caveats like “while the evidence of the trial has not validated claims that Zimmerman was racially motivated, the public reaction in the media has served to focus widespread prejudice about the intellectual capacity of people without formal English language skills…” AND possibly elsewhere in the course of the article, something like: “leaving aside the larger questions of Rachel Jeantel’s reliability as a witness, the trial showed how difficult it can be for non-English speakers to give testimony in court room settings.”

    But not only was the article not sufficiently careful in this way, it also gleefully ventured (with no factual supports) into the emotional territory of the wider context of the case. It could not do this without getting onto different issues – in particular the legally material issue of Zimmerman’s alleged racial profiling of Martin.

    I don’t expect articles to refrain from using the larger context of an issue to broaden the scope of a discussion. I was glad to get into the thick of the wider set of issues this article had raised. But don’t pretend that in drawing upon such issues that you are remaining clinically on-point!

    How did the song go? “We know sometimes words have two meanings…”

  2. Matt Hardin

    [Speaking slang is one thing, but the ability to change your speech to match the occasion is a skill that everyone should have, at least at a basic level.]

    I heartily agree.

  3. Catsidhe

    No, Fully (sic), you’re out of order!

    Oh, wait, Chris isn’t joking.

  4. Fully (sic)

    So what you’re effectively saying is, since we didn’t write a blog about something that you wanted to comment on, that we’re off-topic?

  5. Chris Williams


    I have been censored and to suggest I was ‘off topic’ is a simply a cop-out.

    The opening paragraph of your article makes a very big double-barrelled claim: that “reactions to the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, friend of Trayvon Martin, demonstrates the cultural attitudes of a nation, and how we all need to learn a little respect.”

    I began my unpublished comment by arguing that “No one likes a snob but the strongest claim of this article – that people who speak non-standard dialects aren’t necessarily less or more intelligent than those that do – is not germane to the key issue raised by the testimony of this witness.”

    There is no doubt an argument to be had about whether Jeantel was unfairly criticised for her lack of English language skills but it is not obvious to me that such criticism says much about the vast sweep of cultural attitudes of the nation. The implication from your statement is that negative reactions to Jeantel were fundamentally racist. Clearly there is racism in the US but I don’t believe a lack of sympathy for someone unable to speak English with clarity necessarily derives from racism. The larger more serious problem with Jeantel’s testimony was that her testimony was factually inconsistent, making her an unreliable witness. Should people respect language differences? Sure. Should they therefore also respect them for telling fibs in a murder trial?

    In regard to the racism revealed in this case, I said the most obvious point to make about the language used in her testimony was that she used the only language that can be described as racist. She did this in relaying what she said was Martin’s description of Zimmerman as a “crazy-assed cracker” – “cracker” being a contemporary racial slur used by blacks for poor whites. It would not be necessary to draw too much meaning from Martin’s use of this word except for the fact that the whole prosecution and media case against Zimmerman was based on the groundless allegation that it was a racial hate crime. That there is a double standard at work seems an obvious issue to me. In support of this, my comment pointed to the double standard in reporting of other vicious crimes by the US media.

    I think claiming I am ‘off the point’ is either surprisingly ignorant or too clever by half – I give you the benefit of it being the latter. You’re a linguist – you know that words convey meanings outside their surface context. Saying that Jeantel has been unfairly treated over her language invites us to be sympathetic about Jeantel generally and conversely to be unsympathetic to Zimmerman’s lawyer and to Zimmerman himself. The sub-text is ‘come on, stop picking on Rachel, the bad guy in this case is Zimmerman’. To say otherwise is to deny what we know about the way language works.

    I was particularly appalled in this regard by the way you repeated the falsehood that Zimmerman had profiled Martin as black because he was wearing a hoody. It was bad enough that you mentioned this profiling accusation given that this has been shown to be based on the dishonest way in which the top rating US Today morning news program doctored Zimmerman’s mobile phone record to the police (Zimmerman only suggested he thought Martin was black in response to a direct question from the operator as to whether the man he saw was white, black or Hispanic). But I took particular offence to the way in which you compounded this untruth with a truly awful metaphor comparing such behaviour to the way in which rape victims are sometimes blamed for wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothes. It is, you lecture in your article, “the same type of patronizing, victim-blaming advice that is afforded to survivors of sexual assault.” The sub-text here is pretty obvious – Zimmerman is not even some average deluded zealot who killed a young innocent man he is morally repugnant and not unlike a rapist – and as a piece of writing it is either sloppy and reckless, or deliberately vicious.

    My comment was not “on point” because your point is one that serves to obfuscate the significant issues and the serious lessons to be drawn from this case. Your article is just another spray in the vast media fuzz obscuring what is actually going on. If it wasn’t meant to do that it has done so nonetheless by inviting people to place their sympathy somewhere other than on the guy who has been the subject of outrageous and vicious media, government and judicial attack irrespective of – and sometimes tampering with – the facts presented clearly before the police and the court.

    You say other bloggers are also not published because they are similarly ‘off-topic’. Fascinating. Being in company doesn’t make me feel less censored. Does it help to start with a laudatory statement? This appears universal across published comments.

  6. Fully (sic)

    Chris, your earlier comment was not approved because it was not relevant to this post, which relates to the permissibility or otherwise of judging someone on the basis of the dialect with which they speak. The trustworthiness of Jeantel’s testimony, the conduct of the trial and ultimately, the accuracy of the verdict are not for us, or you, to comment on. Other comments that used the space to editorialise about the case were similarly not approved, not because they contain opinions with which we disagree, but because they violate the first and foremost point of the comments policy.

  7. Chris Williams

    Further to my earlier comment criticising this story, currently under the scrutiny of the Crikey thought police, if you are having trouble finding any reference to the brutal attack on Mark Slavin, by two black youths which is otherwise virtually totally unknown due to an American media black-out of stories of black violence against whites, I refer you to the Orlando Sentinel of 23 May 2012.

  8. Jodi Matic

    Wonderful, truly wonderful. Thank you.

  9. mikeb

    Interesting article which caused me to think about the recent “controversy” around a video game which featured a white cartoon character “Tiny Tina” who spoke “ghetto” (for want of a better word). Apparently certain sections of the American population indignantly equated that to “black face”. The script writer was nonplussed because he couldn’t see how anyone could describe a white character talking like an African-American as being somehow racist. Anyhow – the point being, I think, that the terms racist or sexist or ___ist are thrown about to readily. The whole concept of speech is to communicate, and an inability to do so is a failing that educators should treat seriously. Speaking slang is one thing, but the ability to change your speech to match the occasion is a skill that everyone should have, at least at a basic level.

  10. Simon Musgrave

    Sorry – link didn’t work. The url is http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5161

  11. Simon Musgrave

    Great post – thank you.
    For comments by John Rickford, one of the leading scholars of African-American Vernacular English see LanguageLog.

  12. John Olstad

    Ian – I can’t exactly say that I’ve noticed that attitudes are changing in my tiny sample. I have noticed many more people acknowledging that language is always changing in general, though.

    Your second point is very interesting. I think that’s the crowd I was talking to most when I wrote this essay.

  13. Peter Austin

    Good article. As a parallel, I encounter communication difficulties very often at work. I’m in a large steel manufacturing plant. Any time we get people from a cross-section of departments and/or fields of training, misunderstanding is very easy due to the many department-specific technical terms and acronyms. It doesn’t mean the accountants are any more or less intelligent than the electrical engineers or the chemists. We just each have a “dialect” which we use for rapid efficient communication with our own “group”, and have to communicate more slowly and with constant definition and explanation in any cross-functional setting.

  14. tonyfunnywalker

    Stephen – I believe you are spot on- Zimmerman was only prosecuted because of a public outcry as he claimed ” Stand your Ground” a Florida legislation backed by the NRA.

    On the issue of language the issues of ” dialect” are still used in the UK ( the home of real English) demonstrate a cultural divide and as a basis of discrimination.

    I know as I am Welsh born and a Welsh speaker. There have been a number of cases before the courts recently in Wales of racial vilification of Welsh speakers by their English neighbours.

    BTW the current Prince of Wales speaks Welsh, The Duke of Cambridge and his wife live in Wales and the Royal Baby will one day be the Prince of Wales .

  15. Ian Holder

    “You Are What You Speak” is the next ebook I will buy…thanks Stephen.

    Great, and challenging, post John: but I do wonder, as you are at university — do you see attitudes changing among younger people? From your comments above about the need to pull up a chair, I am guessing not all the time.

    I do not consider myself “too old” at 36 🙂 , and as someone very much of the same view as you, those around my age often seem just as stuck in the ‘one proper form of English’ view and that dialects or non-standard forms are a sign of a lack of intelligence/education, which as blanket statements concern me. I am curious as to thoughts as to why language [these people are often otherwise socially liberal] brings out the judging/rule-master in us?

  16. Stephen

    All very true, and very much the subject of Robert Greene’s “You Are What You Speak”.

    But some would say that Jeantel’s non-standard English was the least of her problems, in a long and frequently faulty stand in the witness box.

    She just seemed like yet another of many prosecution own-goals. Was the prosecution even trying to win?

  17. John Olstad

    Good points, Terry! Shakespeare was certainly before the time standardization of spelling got popular. And I agree with you that ‘standard’ is an unfortunate term.

  18. TerryHull

    Great point that has implications far beyond the present case. But what is the reference to “standard” forms of language? That would seem to be part of the problem. We seem to forget that Shakespeare, Robbie Burns and James Joyce hardly follow the standard spelling, grammar or expression that we see in contemporary scholastic English. Perhaps we need to replace “standard” with a word that does not impart privilege to one among many forms.


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