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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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