In the past month there have been several big media stories in the U.S. dealing with language. One was the use of racist language (and behavior) by Paula Deen, the celebrity Southern cook, which has resulted in her losing most if not all of her business contracts. The other was the use of English by a witness in the Travon Martin case, 19-year old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who had been on the phone with him just before he was shot by George Zimmerman. As detailed in a post on Language Log, her use of vernacular Black English was widely reported with a number of negative and offensive comments. There was a view expressed that Jeantel was just being lazy or contrary in not speaking standard American English and that she was using English incorrectly with random grammatical mistakes. As linguists pointed out (including John McWhorter on the Time web site in a segment on the NPR series “Here and Now“), she was not willfully distorting standard American English, she was speaking a version of English well known in linguistics and usually called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. As John Rickford points out in his post, AAVE has rules and patterns that are fixed, giving the following examples from her testimony:
- Stressed BIN, as in I was BIN paying attention, sir, meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am still paying attention.”
- Preterit HAD, ax, and inverted did in embedded sentences, as in He had ax me did I go to the hospital “He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.” [The use of the pluperfect form where other varieties use a simple past or preterit was first discussed by Stanford undergrad Christine Theberge.]
- Absence of auxiliary IS: He ø trying to get home, sir.
- Absence of possessive and third present s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family.”
The defense attorney expressed at times difficulty in understanding Jeantel’s testimony, although it is unclear whether that was indeed the case, or whether this was being used as a strategy to discredit the witness. If the latter was the case, it seems to have worked, as one juror afterwards commented:
Juror B37 said Jeantel was not a good witness because the phrases used during her testimony were terms she had never heard before. The juror thought the witness, “felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her.” [from the cnn blog post]
Ironically, it turns out that Jeantel’s mother is a native speaker of Haitian Creole and that Jeantel speaks Creole and Spanish and thus in terms of speaking skills, has more language skills than most Americans.