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Language On Trial: Rachel Jeantel

Rachel Jeantel, the witness that was on the phone with Trayvon Martin just before he died, gives her testimony during George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. Wednesday, June 26, 2013. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Rachel Jeantel, the witness that was on the phone with Trayvon Martin just before he died, gives her testimony during George Zimmerman’s trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla. Wednesday, June 26, 2013. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Epithets have been in the news recently.

Paula Deen has lost business partners after acknowledging she had used the N-word. Deen said she didn’t know whether the N-word was offensive to African-Americans, because she often heard it used by people who are black.

Then the star witness for the prosecution in the George Zimmerman trial was in the hot seat for the past two days. Only a teenager herself, it sometimes felt like Rachel Jeantel — a friend of Trayvon Martin’s — was the one on trial.

The 19-year-old said the N-word many times, as well as the word cracker, when recounting her last conversation with Martin.

Zimmerman’s defense attorney asked her to repeat herself multiple times, apparently unable to understand the way she talked.

Linguists who study African American Vernacular English (AAVE) — also called Ebonics — recognize all the features in Rachel Jeantel’s speech, including John Rickford, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University.

Khalil Gibran Muhammed, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library, said that scrutinizing Jeantel’s language is really about class and power.

She might be subjected to even higher scrutiny by African-Americans, Muhammed said, because she is expected to be representing the black community. And speaking “proper” English is bound up with black respectability.

Interview Highlights: 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.”

“Because people seem to agree that language is this profound mark of education and worth, then you can often beat up on it when you want to beat up on other aspects of people without fear of being criticized. So there are many things that Rachel Jeantel represents, but she is herself a victim. This is her childhood friend, she knew him from kindergarten. She’s talking about what she heard, and instead she’s the one being put on trial, not only by the defense attorney but by all of America.”

Interview Highlights: Khalil Gibran Muhammed

“These various responses, from the racist to the confused to those articulating long-standing classist notions of a ‘proper’ black person or ‘proper’ black behavior, are enduring problems in American culture. Problems only in the standpoint that they get in the way of recognizing people’s humanity. In other words, what’s on trial here is the measure of justice, not the measure of her speech.”

“This is [young Black Americans’] moment for being represented in an important national moment, and many people are criticizing this young woman because she is not living up to what should be a proper racial representation.”


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  • Ansapphire

    This is a ridiculous conversation. 

    • Iisan

       Hallelujah to that!

  • Tagalong

    Are you kidding me?  The professor John Rickford from Stanford states that the use of the word “cracker” to describe a white person had a different meaning for the girl giving testimony in the Treyvon Martin case and insinuating that it’s ok because it’s cultural and she’s black, but not racist.  Yet if other races use similar slang words or terms its viewed as entirely racist, without question….talk about double standards.

    • Redrockjane

      Double Standard It Is. Rickford Should Be Ashamed Of Himself. 

  • anon

    Code switching and the sort of language styles discussed in this piece may seem a primarily a black issue, but in reality it’s been an age-related phenomenon for quite a while now. The pervasive rap and hip-hop culture may play a role here, but plenty Asian, white, Hispanic and black highschool and college age kids speak in similar vernacular. I tend not to, but my brother does, and we both engage in code switching as we move through different social groups where age and mores are a factor.

  • Roy Schreiber

    If the Oxford English Dictionary  (OED) is correct, the term cracker goes back as far as 1507 in England “One who or that which cracks, a boaster, a liar and in the US the term, cracker, was applied to poor Southern whites as early as 1767.  I ran across the term doing historical research on 17th century England when Lord Wentworth, the Lord Deputy Lieutenant of Ireland, referred to himself in a letter as a Northern Cracker.  Unlike Yankee Doodle that started out as a negative term and became positive, cracker started negative and stayed that way.

  • closetothetruth

    Robin Young, whom I usually respect, was deeply offensive in this segment. Like many people who talk about this topic, she simply does not know what she is saying, and unfortunately Prof. Rickford, an expert on the subject who does know what he’s saying, was unable to get through to her. This was shameful. 

    • Robin Y

      Oh so sorry to disappoint! I felt I took his points, but it’s my job to represent others,
      like people, black or white, who don’t accept that non mainstream english should be tolerated.

      Tender subject, thanks for weighing in.


      • closetothetruth

        the view that “non mainstream english should not be tolerated” is pure and simple racism. it has no basis in facts about language anywhere, and there is a deep and long and well-known history of exactly this fact, articulated by many scholars, including John McWhorter whom you mentioned, but whose work I suspect you have not read. the idea that it is up to you, or me, or anyone else to decide what language should be “tolerated” is absurd and profoundly offensive. Do we “tolerate” people with Southern accents or Irish accents? Or accept that this is the way people speak, the way they have been born and raised, and that eradicating these ways of speaking means eradicating the people themselves? The fact is that the only “ways of speaking” that are ever discussed as being “tolerated” are those spoken by racial and ethnic minorities.

        if this segment was on miscegenation, would you have presented with as much seriousness and respect the notion that blacks and whites should not marry because it’s harmful to the races? (the view was held by both blacks and whites). If it was on school segregation, would you have presented so uncritically the view that schools should be segregated, which also had and has advocates of both races?

        I have heard this matter discussed many times on NPR by other hosts who grasp the realities under this topic, and the way you spoke to Prof. Rickford–among other things, although you did not understand this, calling his entire life’s work and that of the scholars who have worked with him into question–was very different. He was exceedingly polite and chose not to point this out, but it was very clear. They are not his “points” to be disputed by a radio interviewer–they are scholarly findings produced over decades of work by him and many others. If Rickford was a scientist, would you call his research into question because there are some people in the public who don’t agree with it? You did not seem to understand that language prejudice is, in the opinion of most who have looked into this issue, simply prejudice (usually racial prejudice) by another name. Yes, you could have presented the contrary view, just as you could present the contrary view about miscegenation, but I remain confident that you would have been more sensitive in that case, and could have been in this one.

        Frankly, I think you should read more work by McWhorter, Rickford, Anne Charity Hudley, William Labov, just to begin with, and then re-listen to your interview. You simply did not treat him, or the topic, with the respect you would other topics. You actually sounded like you disagreed with his statement about the “completeness” of African-American Vernacular English as a language, a topic that is even more firmly established in the research literature than climate change, which linguists from Chomsky to Pinker to those completely opposed to their work all endorse.

        It was as if you’d said, “but you know, some people think black people just aren’t capable of abstract thought or of holding sophisticated employment” to a researcher who has spent their lives demonstrating that black people think just as abstractly and do just as well at sophisticated jobs as anyone else. That’s also something people think, but it’s too wrong to deserve unqualified representation on a responsible radio program–and believe it or not, that is pretty much what people are saying when they say Black English is in any way “less than” other forms of English. It isn’t. Plain and simple. And if you disagree, you need to disagree with the research on the topic, not out of your own opinion, because the research is comprehensive and unassailable.

        • Robin Y

          Take your points. Have read and had on people you mention! But still felt it was appropriate to mention nay sayers (again, not my opinion) and he had a great response. (Something along lines of,” it’s not how it should be, it is.”)  Also loved Kahlil’s reference to Boston accents. 

          Thanks for taking so much time and thought.

          All  best,

      • Tyrobob

         I  stopped listen to this show after Robin interviewed one of the women who was forced sterilized by the her state.  She made the poor woman cry when she ‘did her job to represent others’.  nothing has changed. I be listening again.

        • Tyrobob

           won’t be listening.

  • Stabletops

    The word “cracker” does not have the same background as other racial slurs and does not hold the same hatred. Seriously, get over yourselves for not understand why a young black man would describe a white person that way.

    • Tagalong

      Your reasoning is simply an excuse to use the term willingly and without prejudice. Much like whites will say “Ohh my black friends used the N word around me so its ok if i do”.  The historical context is fine but words and language change over time to mean very different things.  “Cracker” means something very different to todays youths than it did in 1767.  

      Don’t believe me?  Survey 100 white and black young adults and see what “Cracker” means to them.  

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      I think it depends on how you say it. if you say it in a hateful way then its hateful. if someone were to kill someone because they were a “cracker” I would think that should fall in the category of hate crime wouldn’t you?

    • Jasonllsworth

      You are correct, in that ‘cracker’ doesn’t have the same background and history as the n word. You are incorrect that it doesn’t hold the same hatred. Black people that have said that word to me have always followed it with an attempted punch to the face. It is a word that leads to violence. It is a hate word.

  • Jim_thompson

    It is not the same when some whites use the n word and some blacks use the word cracker for white.  The n word is often used as a hateful, demeaning term by those in power.  Cracker is more of a descriptive word.  I am a 53 white man( a Boston Irishman living now in South Carolina-so think of my language issues) and think the white majority are just cry babies when called out for using racist words.  The biggest difference is that the majority who holds power are truly the only ones that can cause and inflict harm by language.  Also, I understood every single word that the witness said.  This is a young girl who is not used to being in a court room, on the stand and has suffered real trauma in suffering the death of her life long friend.  With the exception of the volume level I simply do not understand how anyone didn’t understand her.  I think she is very courageous.  She should be commended and thanked.  I sure commend her and thank her.

    • Tagalong

      Wait up a second, just because YOU’RE not offended by the term “cracker” used to describe a white person doesn’t mean others are not.  You don’t think a young black male using the term “cracker” in anger or nervousness isn’t trying to convey the sense of superiority by him or guilt on the other subject?  For a cultural reference, watch any Dave Chapelle show when he uses the term “cracker” and I think you’ll come away with a farm greater understanding of the modern day usage of the term, not its historical roots which have little to nothing to do with with todays usage of it.

      Just a descriptive word?  Ohh bless you child for not having spent a majority of your life in the south where racism on every level is vibrant and real…from both sides.  If you think for one second that the term “cracker” used by other races isn’t a racially charged or derogative statement and used as such, you have no business adding to this discussion.

      I can think of PLENTY of “descriptive” words that do just that, describe someone” but are entirely racist or hateful due to race/sex/gender/etc.

      • marmot_smith

        But Dave Chappelle was hilarious and I loved his usage of  ‘cracker’.

        I’ve been called cracker before and I let it slide because the 400 years of slavery was much worse than any insult spoken to me out of distrust for a system that continues to oppress by stop and frisk, driving while black, attempts to suppress the vote, and continued slavery by removing Black American 13th amendment right by putting them in prison for minor drug possessions and having them work for $0.10 an hour…

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          both historical and modern drug war slavery are also applied to white people

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      oh so black people can never say anything hateful or demeaning towards white people? do I hold power over black people if I am white?

      • RR

        They can.  It’s just different because the way power is distributed in this world, power backs whiteness.  A black person can totally target a white person, buuut…at the end of the day, police will be more suspicious of the black person, courts will be more likely to listen to the white person (esp if the black person grew up in a black neighborhood where there were probably worse schools), etc. It’s that context that a lot of people use to define the difference between racism and prejudice.  Prejudice=discrimination.  Racism=discrimination + power.  

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          I would be the first to admit that white privilege exists. power and money seem to go together well.    

        • Jim_thompson

          Thank you!

      • Jim_thompson

        You are in the majority…that’s your power.  No one said black people can’t say anything hateful or demeaning.  It’s just that the weight of their words don’t carry the same harm or power as the majority’s.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          I think their words hold the same weight. when Hispanic people are in the majority will it then be ok for me to make racist comments to or about them?

  • Dhaithco88

    I dont understand why this is being viewed as a “african american dialect” and frankly find it offensive. This young woman is the prime example of how our schools, especially in lower income (urban, black and hispanic) areas are failing children.

    • Aby

      Why is the term “african american dialect” offensive?  There’s no implication that such a dialect would be spoken ALL black people nor does this term imply that such a dialect would be spoken by blacks alone.  I mean, there’s a British English and an American English, etc.; isn’t it feasible / doesn’t it make sense that a language variety also developed among another group of people (i.e., U.S. blacks) once upon a time?

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        I think that was odd because they also said Spanish was her first language

        • Aby

          Well, she speaks ≥4 languages, but I think that you and Dhaithco88 are referring to different topics.  You’re discussing Jeantel’s language background and, yes, Spanish is part of it, as is “african american dialect”–among other things. 
          Dhaithco88, on the other hand, is questioning whether Jeantel’s language/speech should be considered “african american dialect” and she is suggesting that such a characterization is offensive…

          • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

            I guess hillery Clinton and oboma even code switch to an African American dialect sometimes.

  • kgrombacher

    I know a white cowboy singer from Florida who bills himself as the “Cracker Tenor.”  The Western Folklife Center featured “Cracker Cowboys,” those cowboys from the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana, at its national gathering in Elko NV in 2010.  No double standard at all -  one is truly a racial epithet, the other is a cultural marker.

  • Guest


    The use of the word “cracker” is very offensive,
    I don’t see how one race can use this word and it’s fine, it is not, it is  a “slur”. 
    Poor, Paula Deen, who used the N- Word over 30+ years ago and gets racked over
    the coals. 

    • bella

      indeed, it is extremely offensive to be called a cracker. It is a demeaning term derived from the times when we were discriminated against, right? People who use this word have power over us because for years and years in history, their people have enslaved us “crackers”, and our ancestors died for the simple right to sit where we please on public transportation, right? No. The n-word is offensive because it is still practicing racism that we disgustingly built this country with. Get over yourself.

      • Vanessa D

        Then please tell me why black persons continue to use it.

    • Age

      How can you compare the use of a slur by a tv personality to the use of an epithet by a witness in a trial?!

    • Foochy

       “Cracker” is not an offensive term in Georgia and Florida — it is used to describe white rural people and their cultural contributions. 

  • MarkVII88

    How dumb do you have to be for the gist of what this young lady was saying on the stand to escape you?  In terms of the “ass” words I’m sure most people, whether white or black have heard of a “dumb-ass” or a “dumb-ass move” or a “dumb-ass person”.  With this in mind it’s not much of a leap to get the gist of what “creepy-ass” means.  It makes me seriously question the intelligence of the attorneys and/or jurors raising these issues at trial.

    • John216

      On the contrary, I think the defense attorneys are being very clever by foregrounding the witness’s dialect as a tactic to damage her credibility.

      When I think about that in relation to the subject matter, to this young woman losing her murdered friend, it’s pathetic.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      I thought that was interesting as I have bee calling this some stupidassshit for a while. I had no idea it was an ebonics thing

  • Marsbar078

    The conversation about whether African American dialect or use of epithets are proper forms of usage is irrelevant in the Trayvon Martin case. In this case, we are talking about testimony. The imperative is to make sure that accurate testimony is given, and to determine its proper meaning, not to pass judgment on whether or not it is proper usage. If the person testifying were speaking another language, we would assume that the trial would call for a proper translator; we would make sure that the legitimate meaning was given to the jury, judge and attorneys. We would make sure the translation was accurate, and got to the heart of the meaning. As “cracker” inherently means “white guy,” we would understand that these terms essentially convey the same meaning. The trial is not the place to judge whether this is a hurtful epithets. Such epithets are used in testimony all the time. The point is, what was the information conveyed, and how does it pertain to the evidence in the case. Mixing the issue of court testimony with opinions about proper usage, and conflating it with the Paula Deen case, which a case specifically about epithets, is muddling completely different issues.

    • Elizabeth Downey

       In a way Masbaro78, I think the dialect is relevant to the trial. He (the lawyer) is smart, he is trying to make her (which is not hard at all) to discredit her and honestly doing a great job.  She suppose to be able to read and write, yet she was ‘unable to read cursive’…to me she can not read or write, or if she can, she is mentally slow.  Her voice is very soft and timid…she is not confident in what she is saying…that to me shows she is lying or mentally slow, or something…I have testified in court b4 n I was confident in what I said bc what I said was the truth. I had nothing to hide…

      • Adri

        So you testified at the age of 19 and a year after your friend was murdered?

        • Elizabeth Downey

           no I was older than 19…

          • Dobbiehall108

            I’ve noticed that others have noticed your lack of intellect also.  How does it feel to be ridiculed because you don’t know how to compose a complete sentence?

          • Elizabeth Downey

             I do not pay attention to everyone’s opinions…opinions are like assholes…everyone has one…they can say whatever bc I am intelligent…I have an Associate’s Degree in BA and a Bachelor’s Degree in Management.

          • marmot_smith

            You certainly do not know how to compose a complete sentence in standard English  without dropping into contemporary internet acronyms nor have the intelligence to see the irony when you are criticizing someone else as unintelligent for slipping into African American English and speaking slowly to make sure she’s not getting tricked up by the defense attorney.

          • Elizabeth Downey

             and what is so wrong with ‘dropping into contemporary internet acronyms” at least you can understand what I am talking about…how about staying on the subject at hand besides ‘trying’ to bash me for what I say or how I type…n not like “Zimmerman’s defense attorney asked her to repeat herself multiple times, apparently unable to understand the way she talked.”  Are you trying to ‘teach me a lesson’ because it is not working…I am not the subject, but thanks for talking about me, even ‘badly’ because I am a great subject to talk about! Thanks!

          • Brian Reading

            Elizabeth, you really don’t see how your comments are proving the point of those in disagreement with you?

          • Elizabeth Downey

            everyone has a right to their own opinion…

          • Oya

             Brain, you are correct, because, like the people with whom she is identifying she has no understanding beyond  limited training that does not bespeak (I like the olde English, sometimes) of interest or knowledge of more than the specific nature and form of  what is “current.” For her, the use of IT jargon is on par with standard English. There is logic and cultural ignorance that appears in these fora continuously–and will, sadly “morph” into standard usage in the near future. The vulgar always inundates the refined. Too bad.

          • Vanessa D

            “I am a great subject to talk about!”  Only because you are an example of part of what is wrong with the U.S. today–a pathetic education system and a general lowering of cultural standards. Your refusal to acknowledge your errors and learn from them, your total commitment to defending your own ego at all costs, and your grandiose ideas about yourself are rather pathetic. And that is my opinion.

          • Vanessa D

            Oh my, how our colleges/universities have lowered their standards! Your comments add to the body of proof.

          • Oya

             The word “opinion” is from the Latin opinari, through fr opineo to  me-opine  It means “to think.” (We say, in poetry, at least, “S/he pines….” not the tree.

            Someone who “opines” once had an opinion based in thought. Thought suggests that one has studied (mental application) a topic, has looked at several source possibilities (called research) and has drawn a logical inference and assessment grounded in that previous investigation.

             So, yes there are all kinds of opinions. I was asked to give a talk to a meeting of university educated professionals on “Opinions,” in which I made this point. Someone who is, literally saying how they “feel” based on no investigation is a lower form  of opinion–I’ll say a-h opinion.  The findings of a biological, chemical, physic, etc.,  social scientific investigation has a higher level opinion–an educated finding and conclusion. But, here, again, is where the language has lost preciseness just like “n” for “in. The history of linguistics shows a general dumbing-down as lower-class, un-informed experience influence invades usage.

          • Guestman

            The end of this comment shows a fundamentally poor understanding of linguistics.  No linguist would ever use the phrase “dumbing down” in reference to the adaptability of language.

        • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

          she was not 16? why did I think she was? oh yeah she lied about that

      • Ontheverge80

        Yeah? Because what you’re doing with written language (b4, n, bc) and what she’s doing with spoken language are no different.

      • Bigmetfan

        “He (the lawyer) is smart, he is trying to make her (which is not hard at all) to discredit her and honestly doing a great job.  She suppose to be able to read and write..”    You aren’t exactly the next William Safire either….

        • Elizabeth Downey

           well Bigmetfan…I never stated that I was a presidential speech writer, and know that I can state that I could learn how to write better…but this is not about me n how I write, now is it?

          • jim

             E;lizabeth Downey, You make judgements based upon her literacy, yet are surprised when people judge you harshly for your literacy, or lack of?? Why does the same action towards you surprise you?? You speak of sounding confident and literate, yet you sound neither here, can you imagine how much worse you would sound being nervous and in front of ALL OF AMERICA on camera? Can you imagine it at all? Because the little bit you are getting here is just a drop in the bucket compared to what she is going through and you don’t seem to be handling it well.

          • Doloresjohnson09

            Maybe you should just stop and think before you speak. Most teens do not utilize cursive writing and therefore may not retain the ability to read it. They are actually considering removing cursive writing from schools due to the lack of its usage by the younger generation. So that really does not imply that she is illiterate or slow. Do you really believe that anyone that doesn’t speak The Kings English properly can’t be credible? I would venture to say, Mam you are very likely a racist.

      • shal

        Your grammar and written language are hardly different from Rachel’s. You’ve testified in court four times?  What have you been doing and where have you been to have witnessed so many events that require your testimony?   Surely, I am older than you and have not had to testify ONE time in my life.

        To assume that this young girl is lying because of her language is very narrow minded of you.  That is exactly what that lawyer wanted you to think and you fell for it. Am I to assume that you are mentally slow because of the terrible phrasing of the second sentence in this poorly written Paragraph?

        Oh, to prove an important point: You too must learn to write. I thought you were saying you had testified four times in court because of that gibberish you wrote.  Is this what we have come to-a total inability to communicate?  Re-read what you have written and correct it right away before someone classifies you as you have classified Rachel.  I believe her.

        • Elizabeth Downey

           first off Dobbiehall108…she DID lie on the stand not just about her writing the letter then admitting that she had a friend to write it for her, she also lied about her age! My grammar may not be perfect, but I am not on the witness stand…so besides trying to go off on me, how about staying on the subject at hand…woo I didn’t type all the correct words to please u, get over it, we r having a discussion about this trial…not about me, but I do enjoy u all talking about me…I am a great subject to talk about!

          • marmot_smith

            Because your ignorance is hilarious!

          • Elizabeth Downey


             @ marmot_smith…How am I unfamiliar with the subject
            at hand? You know that is what ‘ignorance’ means…unfamiliar…” No, I do
            not have ‘proper’ English, but “Zimmerman’s defense attorney asked her to
            repeat herself multiple times, apparently unable to understand the way she
            talked.” and just because I do not type all the words when replying to
            this news article, at least you can understand what I am talking about…again
            I know am a wonderful subject to talk about, but let us stay on the true
            subject at hand…

      • Vanessa D

        “She suppose to be able…” ??? Are you serious? Try: She is supposed to be able…

      • Oya

         The correct tense for “suppose” is the past tense “supposed. She can not read cursive because cursive, like most things of value, and more than thirty years old, have being phased out of many US school systems. Schools are  dumbed-down, and under funded..
         Mademoiselle (Mam’selle) Jeantel (Jon-tel) grew up speaking Creole (Hatian French  and Spanish. Her family and cultural background is both Haitien and Colombia–a next door nation.

        She is not “mentally slow.” She is the result of a diverse background and education. As she told Attorney West, when asked, “I understand English very well.” Understanding and being fluent in speaking a language are two different things. I have a relative by marriage, who understands his parents Korean but does not speak the language. He has two university degrees. Also, the English form you altered is “before” not “b4.”

        As a professional educator who is comfortable communicating with different cultures I found your comment more difficult for a response than Ma’mselle Jeantel’s.
         Comprendez vous?

  • Lkiff2

    Dr. Rickford seems to have a poor understanding of this matter, suggesting that he may be intellectually trapped in the Stanford bubble. If he really wants to be educated on stuff like this, he should get out on the street and mix with the people and not only the ones in “downtown” Palo Alto.  This was not a very informative piece.

    • youmustbekidding

       are you serious? do you know anything about Rickford’s work and background?

  • Listener

    Robin, I get what you were trying to do, but you come from a premise that there is such a thing as “mainstream” English, when there are simply dialects of those in power and those without power. There is no linguistic evidence of “proper” English; it is a social construct and people need to understand that someone who speaks a different dialect from someone else is the same as someone who speaks a different language. It has nothing to do with intelligence or effort. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      yet many people can easily code switch

  • goober

    To convict there must be no reasonable doubt of guilt in the minds of the jurors
    To accept ebonics as a legitimate language is to accept the failure of American education.
    To what sort of jobs or career does can fluency in ebonics lead.
    The ability to be understood by your fellow citizens should be the minimal requirements of an education.

    A young man is dead, the major witness speaks a dialect not understood by all.
    My guess is that someone on the jury will dismiss her testimony because of that.

    All around its pretty sad day for American justice and American education.

  • TheEthiopiankid775

    I do not understand why Black Americans do not speak proper English. I speak Amharic(Ethiopian) as a first language yet I can still be understood by anyone who listens.

    • Age

      What a generalization! Some black Americans DO speak mainstream U.S. English.  Yet others were socialized in environments where non-mainstream varieties or dialects of English were spoken and never had sufficient access to mainstream English, and so THIS is why those people don’t speak mainstream English.  I mean, why do you speak Amharic instead of, for example, Javanese?  Because you were socialized in an Amharic-speaking environment and NOT a Javanese-speaking environment!  
      Also, plenty of people–besides SOME blacks–don’t speak mainstream U.S. English.  In fact, it has been suggested that Standard English is an abstract, unattainable linguistic ideal, so perhaps NO ONE speaks “proper English”…

      • TheEthiopiankid775

        What you said makes sense, Ii guess I didn’t think about this enough.

        • Vanessa D

          No, you are mostly correct. I clearly understood that you did not mean ALL black Americans. And if Adri thinks that some “never had sufficient access to mainstream English..” which is why they don’t speak it, maybe you should ask him if he knows any black households that don’t have a TV in it on which they can listen to legitimate national news programs spoken in correct English by both white and black jounalists and reporters, if they care to learn to speak correctly. Local news programs won’t be helpful; one will hear poor grammar from both whites and blacks. 

  • Andiwasall

    To assume that “cracker” and “n****” have the same damaging heft is to assume that black folk and white folk have had a level history in this country. African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is as well-formed and rule-driven as any other dialect of English or any language. The undervaluing of the dialect and its speakers has everything to do with history—of the enslaved as having been viewed as lesser-than—a history we are all still living.

  • Geheran105

    There is nothing inherently wrong about speaking a dialect as long as one can also speak the proper language of the land. Our education system, schools and parents, is a total failure if this young woman is an example of that system. Call it what it is……very sad.

    • Andiwasall

      I would ask you to think about what “proper” language is exactly, and how what you might deem “improper” english gets in the way gets in the way of your view of your fellow humans.

      • Geheran105

        I don’t judge my fellow human beings by the language they speak. My point is that in virtually every country there is an officially recognized language spoken, used in the Law, in commerce, etc. if one resides in a country it is incumbent on him/her to be able to converse in that language regardless of their second or third language.
        Sent from my iPad

  • Mary Blaisdell

    Clearly still distraught over the loss of her lifelong friend, Ms. Jeantel was nicely dressed, neatly coiffed, and tastefully made up and someone who also seemed very uncomfortable to have the nation’s attention being shy and probably aware of her difficult to understand speech.  Coming off as passive in not coming forward sooner, she really was just naive — at one point saying, “I didn’t think I’d be a witness as I didn’t see anything because I wasn’t there.” 

    Proudly, she refuted attempts to dismiss her sometimes incomprehensible testimony due to a language barrier by saying, “No, I understand English very good.”  The defense was speaking highbrow American English and she was speaking her cultural inheritance of Ebonics.  Especially given defense attorney Don West’s meandering and repetitive questioning (even the judge lost patience) and knowing she was out of her element,  I think Ms. Jeantel did an admirable job. Kudos to her.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    I found it interesting that npr bleeped out the n word but not the c word. the was she was using it was clearly offensive as it was not said in jest but intended it to be an epithet

    • Foochy

      Again, cultural and regional differences in language use is key. In parts of Georgia and Florida, “cracker” is a cultural term used to define white rural ways of living, and is a source of pride for some Georgians and Floridians.  Ms. Jeantel could rightfully say that it was not a slur because the term is largely one of region and class, and not skin color — at least in the state of Florida. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

        so are you in some cases npr would not bleep out the n word if it was appropriate in a culture and region to say it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    ever heard that sly and the family stone song?

  • florence l tate

    may i repeat your judgement on this whole matter: neither this beautiful, courageous young woman nor her language(s) are on trial.  zimmerman and justice are.

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      “justice” is not on trial

  • Earl

    As I read all these comments, I am amazed at the undercurrent of hate being injected into the conversation. May I suggest you folks putting down “Ebonics” as improper English, remember the language spoken here “as English” in reality is a Dialect infused with local understandings of certain sound and the ability to repeat them. Have any of you “seemingly very intelligent people” travelled to London, England (England, the home of the language we speak) and listened to the London Cockney dialect? many of you folk may think you are listening to Russian or Chinese, and yet they are speaking English and clearly understand each other. Yet this young lady (who by the way presented very well) was able to upset a highly trained trial lawyer. He clearly thought she was stupid and by asking her the same question ten different ways he tried to throw  her off balance. What was her response to this method of questioning? Remember English (or whatever version of it was spoken) is not on trial here. We have put George Zimmerman on trial for killing (by using a gun) Trayvon Martin. The white man as a witness folks believe spoke the truth. If so what did the Oriental woman say, or the white woman (who needed a translator) Their versions were the opposite to the white man, so, are we saying they did not speak the truth. come on folks get real here.

  • Jasonllsworth

    You cannot be racist against white people?!?
    I grew up in a Latino neighborhood, and I was the ONLY white kid for a mile in any direction. I dealt with racism towards me pretty much every day. That is an absurd statement.
    Any group of one race showing hate through speech towards another race is racism. Color is irrelevant.

    • marmot_smith

      That is not the definition of racism.  Racism requires power to oppress; the word you are looking for is ‘bigoted’.

      Anyone can be bigoted.

      • CircEsAdreim

        No, racism is a product of mindset/belief, not power. Anyone, anywhere, anytime can be a racist. It doesn’t take ‘power’ to hate other groups. Just a human being.

        Nice try at using tunnel vision on the definition though.  :p




        • Vanessa D

          I tend to agree with marmot_smith. Racism can only be achieved by those in power because racism is the enactment of legislation against a minority group, which has the effect of legally denying them their basic rights. It is bigotry that is “a product of mindset/belief” and gives everyone the ability to hate anyone else if they so choose. It is the right of any person to think whatever they please, provided they do not act in a way to do harm to another. That last part is the MOST IMPORTANT, by the way. And, to my mind at least, that harm possibly could take the form of choosing to vote away a basic right or rights of a particular group of people. I’d like very much to hear or have a discussion about this last part, about voting choices as a potential  act of harm…

          • CircEsAdreim

            You can have racist systems AND racist people who aren’t part of the system (i.e., racism can and does exist in ‘minority’ groups outside of the system). 
            This attempt to redefine racism as ONLY being about a ‘system’ is dangerous because it ignores racism as it exists in the hearts and minds of individuals.

          • Vanessa D

            You  are confusing the two words. If “it exists in the hearts and minds of individuals.”  then it is bigotry. Racism can only be achieved by those in power against those less powerful. It requires action, not just thinking or believing. Anyway, it’s a semantic issue and probably not worth spending a lot of time trying to resolve.

          • CircEsAdreim

            [quote]You are confusing the two words. If “it exists in the hearts and minds of individuals.” then it is bigotry. [/quote]

            Bigotry is an umbrella term that can apply to all sorts of things; racism is a form of bigotry.

            The reason it’s not a minor issue is because there has been a growing attempt to redefine racist/racism as something that non-whites specifically are incapable of being or acting on.

            Which isn’t true, of course … and is, in a sense, a racist viewpoint at its core.

        • marmot_smith

          Sorry, but your first definition contradicts you:

          ‘ usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.’

          The Europeans are the only ones claiming the right to rule others. They are the ones with the power to rule the other races. I.E. Power. When Hispanics become the dominant race in America then you will understand the meaning better.

          • CircEsAdreim

            No contradiction. There are different definitions of racism. That’s but one of them. So again, anyone can be racist. No matter what their skin color or ethnicity happens to be. It really shouldn’t be that hard to comprehend.

  • TainaTraverso


  • RR

    I was pleasantly surprised to see NPR unpacking people’s reactions to Rachel Jeantel.  Thank you.

  • Just Cindy

    I live in a city with mixed ethnicity. Moving here from Small town middle upper class Caucasian majority.  Being a bold person, as I’ve gotten closer to more African Americans I’ve asked them about their dialect, especially those who use shall I say (rather than “proper” pronunciation) the pronunciation of a word as seen next to it in Websters dictionary. 
    They admittedly switch their dialect from Ebonics to the pronunciation they heard used by their teachers from kindergarten to 12th grade and the thousands of other people around them. 
    There are the exceptions ie a fellow I know who lived most his life in Kentucky where 98% of the people pronunciation just as he.
    Where I live their is no excuse other than choice.
    Admittedly I have A LOT more respect for African Americans who use….as I said, the pronunciation by the word in Websters. 
    I find it odd that they would choose to use something that obviously is not a benefit to their cause for equal rights and justice.

    • Vanessa D

      So do I, Cindy. You make an excellent point with that last statement and I’ve been wondering the same thing for decades. 

  • Beyond_The_Political_Spectrum

    It’s clear from this week’s revelations of Paula Dean and the issue of this young woman’s image/presentation in front of the nation that race continues to prove itself the unresolved issue that America has not yet come to terms with.  Is her lack of proper use of  the Queen’s English any different from the backwoods-type we see on reality TV, or know personally?  Beyond-The-Political-Spectrum

    • Vanessa D

      First, we’re not talking about the “Queen’s English,” but about Standard American English

      Second, I agree with you about the cretins we see on some reality shows, and I view them with the same disdain.

      Third, when I learned that this witness’s first language was not English and that she was not born in the US, I moderated my view of her and felt she deserved some slack…if it’s true.

      Finally, if teachers refuse or are afraid to correct their students’ incorrect grammar (and I’m not talking about regional dialects that can still be spoken in grammatically -correct English)  then those teachers should either be replaced or re-educated. If they are afraid due to the threat of legal or administrative repercussions, then it is up to all of us to use our voices to change this pernicious threat to the education and advancement of our children.

  • paul

    There’s a distinction to be made here. It is fine to be proud of knowing a particular English dialect you grew up with. It is NOT fine to be proud of being ignorant of broader, conventional American English. There may not be a precisely defined conventional American English dialect, but there is a lot of common ground, and it is very valuable to know it. If you do not know it, you are handicapping yourself in many ways, and testifying in court for a jury that does not know your dialect is an example.

    • Vanessa D

      Right you are! I am a white female senior citizen. I believe that black people are born with great native intelligence. When I see TV documentaries on countries in Africa and young children are interviewed, I am always struck by the enormous intelligence beaming through their eyes. And I am greatly impressed with their precise and beautiful use of the English language, in those children who speak it. In the U.S.

      It has been the case that most people who speak (and write in) grammatically-correct English are taken more seriously, regardless of regional accents or dialects. When you look at blacks in high-level positions in business, black jounalists on political talk shows, in middle or upper socioeconomic classes, with or without regional dialects, I doubt you will find many who don’t  use standard American English. So I think that those who use AAVE are, sadly, holding themselves back from living a life that they would truly prefer. Of course we must acknowledge that there are those of any particular group who do not consider the “American dream” to be a desirable or even legitimate goal and therefore are opposed to changing their way of living or speaking and they certainly have the right to do so.

      • Vanessa D

        CORRECTION: Should be as follows:” In the U.S. it has been the case that most people who speak (and write in)
        grammatically-correct English are taken more seriously, regardless of
        regional accents or dialects”        NOT: “…in those children who speak it. In the U.S.”  Sorry for the confusing edit.

      • Origami_Isopod

        So you’re a condescending old white lady with no particular cultural understanding of African-American social issues? You don’t say.

  • A_a

    Remember the TV show Sanford & Son?  It’s amazing what was the norm is now forbidden.

    • Vanessa D

      Also Stevie Wonder singing,
       “Looking back on when I
      was a little nappy-headed boy”  (Song: I Wish)

  • marmot_smith

    Black Americans stick with their version of English because they see it as Uncle Tommary to adopt the slave master’s ‘proper English’ and enjoy the fact that racist whites can’t follow what they are saying.  

    To say they are stupid because they speak a non-standard language is the same as thinking  any other human on the planet from a different culture and language is stupid just because they don’t speak English.  
    If you walk by a person on the street talking on the phone using a steady stream of Yiddish mixed in with their conversation would you then assume they were stupid because they refuse to use ‘proper English’ even though they might be 5th generation Americans?
    Don’t assume native speakers of AAEV are stupid for the same reason.

  • georgebush43

    The trouble  was is that she was speaking to five white women and one hispanic on the jury. 

  • Vanessa D

    Then please tell me why it’s okay for black people to use the n word themselves. I would think that they’d want to delete such a hateful word from their own vocabulary rather than granting it legitimacy by usage.

  • JohnRRickford

     Thanks to Robin Young and program assistant Hitesh Hathi for inviting me to talk on this program, and to all who wrote to offer comments, positive or negative.  I’ve also aired my views on Jeantel’s language at greater length in this post on Language Log:  http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5161.  Language Log also has a good post by Mark Liberman on Forensic Linguistics in the Zimmerman Case: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4886.  If we had had longer or better recordings of the person screaming for help in the 911 call played repeatedly in court, voice recognition or linguistic experts might have been able to identify him more definitively.  As it is, we had relatives and friends on both sides testifying that it was definitely Trayvon Martin or definitely George Zimmerman…

  • David Arjuna

    “…by working-class” blacks?  You mean “by non-working class blacks.”  As for her speaking three languages, that simply shows that the left hemisphere of her brain is not too badly damaged.  Any fairly healthy child growing up around a language learns to speak it.  It’s no intellectual feat.  Now if you drop Jeantel in, say, a Chinese class right now, I guarantee she’d be lost.  This isn’t a bright woman.  More importantly, she’s a racist woman who tried, unsuccessfully, to tailor her testimony to get a “creepy ass cracker” that her friend had tried to pummel.

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