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Rachel Jeantel's Language is English It's Just Not Your English
PolicyMic ^ | July 3, 2013 | Marina Bolotnikova

Posted on 08/06/2013 12:04:45 AM PDT by 2ndDivisionVet

Last week, Don West, defense attorney in the George Zimmerman murder trial, asked friend of Trayvon Martin and case witness Rachel Jeantel a strange question. “Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” he inquired, though she had been answering his questions in fluent English throughout much of the previous day. Jeantel, who was born and raised in Miami, insisted that she did, but West wasn’t convinced. He asked her once more whether perhaps, because her first language was Creole (transmitted to her by her Haitian mother), she had any trouble understanding English.

West was not alone. In the days that followed Jeantel’s testimony, the internet was ablaze with comments about her “poor English,” some of them willfully mean-spirited and others prescribing well-intentioned solutions to the perceived problem of widespread ungrammatical English. Well-intentioned or not, ungrammaticality is not a problem that Jeantel had. We need to look elsewhere to understand the strange phenomenon of being accused of not speaking your own language.

Some have rightly denounced the racism implicit in Jeantel’s questioning, admittedly unknown to West, who may well have been confused about her linguistic background. But even well-meaning commentators aiming to vindicate Jeantel have not quite gotten it right. Salon’s Brittney Cooper wrote that Jeantel speaks her own “idiosyncratic” idiom that combines “the three languages – Hatian Kreyol (or Creole), Spanish, and English — that she speaks.” Well, not exactly. 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.

That there is nothing incorrect about the way Jeantel speaks is not so much an opinion as an undisputed fact that any authority on language could readily point out. I breathed a sigh of relief last weekend when linguist John McWhorter explained that Jeantel’s “English is perfect. It’s just that it’s Black English.” What McWhorter calls “Black English” is a dialect spoken by millions of Americans, and decades of linguistics research, much of it compiled by McWhorter himself, attests that it is a robust dialect like any other, with an internally consistent grammar and vocabulary. Many of those millions of speakers speak exclusively African American English in their communities, only to be taught from their earliest interactions with American public institutions, as schoolchildren, that their dialect is ungrammatical.

Jeantel’s English is not any more or less grammatical than the Standard American variety spoken by Zimmerman’s attorney, but unlike the defense attorney, she did not have the advantage of speaking the dialect that is sanctioned by America’s dominant social stratum. Linguists like John McWhorter fervidly oppose linguistic prescription — the practice of prescribing rules governing language use that do not reflect the way that people speak in practice — which they hold to baselessly and arbitrarily privilege certain varieties of speech over others. Linguistic prescription may be baseless, but it is not arbitrary at all: Prescriptivism systematically and invariably privileges the language of the already powerful.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Trayvon Martin case, which thrust the persistence of racism in America uncomfortably into the spotlight, has continued to clumsily illustrate the structural disadvantages encountered by millions of black Americans. African Americans are victim not just to gross racial profiling, as was Trayvon Martin, but also to linguistic discrimination, a little-understood prejudice that springs directly from linguistic prescription. Some forms of prescription, like rules against split infinitives and ending sentences in prepositions, illogically impose grammatical rules that do not naturally occur in language, but are, on some level, harmless. Others, like our culture’s categorical repudiation of African American English, have social ramifications easily as severe as racial profiling. It can be awfully difficult to excel in school, to succeed in the professional world, or to deliver credible testimony in court when virtually every institution in your society operates with the assumption that your language is fundamentally incorrect and takes it as an indicator of your intelligence.

Many have already pointed out that Rachel Jeantel was wrongly cast as unreliable and combative last week because of her race, gender, and size. We need to add language to that list. It is not because of her flawed English, as some have suggested, but in spite of her perfectly articulated English that Jeantel was discriminated against. Linguistic discrimination is just one of many mechanisms that systemically disadvantage African Americans in the U.S., but it is a crucial one. There are few things so disempowering as being silenced for the language that you speak.


TOPICS: Education
KEYWORDS: bloggers; english; language; racheljeantel; trayvon; zimmerman
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1 posted on 08/06/2013 12:04:45 AM PDT by 2ndDivisionVet
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To: 2ndDivisionVet

I got just two words for you ...


2 posted on 08/06/2013 12:09:17 AM PDT by dr_lew
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To: 2ndDivisionVet

Dats just retarted....


3 posted on 08/06/2013 12:10:24 AM PDT by Dick Vomer (democrats are like flies, whatever they don't eat they sh#t on.)
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To: dr_lew
I'm surprised she could speak at all, with that golf cart tire stuck in her throat.
4 posted on 08/06/2013 12:15:45 AM PDT by BigCinBigD (...Was that okay?)
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To: 2ndDivisionVet

Rachel Jeantel proof positive some people have no business breeding


5 posted on 08/06/2013 12:15:49 AM PDT by LeoWindhorse
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To: 2ndDivisionVet

Let’s go back to tribal drums. Everyone walk around with bongos on their hips. Then there can be no unfair advantage because of language.


6 posted on 08/06/2013 12:15:55 AM PDT by Berlin_Freeper
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Comment #7 Removed by Moderator

To: 2ndDivisionVet

Poo...steaming pile of...this article is...


8 posted on 08/06/2013 12:16:26 AM PDT by prisoner6 ( FREEDOM!)
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To: 2ndDivisionVet
He asked her once more whether perhaps, because her first language was Creole (transmitted to her by her Haitian mother), she had any trouble understanding English. …
Alor! Racism.
9 posted on 08/06/2013 12:16:42 AM PDT by Olog-hai
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To: 2ndDivisionVet
Oh barf. Just plain barf.

There are other words that apply also..

10 posted on 08/06/2013 12:17:42 AM PDT by NoCmpromiz (John 14:6 is a non-pluralistic comment.)
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To: 2ndDivisionVet

Yo Marina, let me ax you, why you talk so much. Shuup, b*tch. You don’t know nuthin. You be my ho. Gimme the money and foget all that jive-a$s bull./s

And to the NSA trolls, FU.


11 posted on 08/06/2013 12:21:20 AM PDT by NTHockey (Rules of engagement #1: Take no prisoners)
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To: Dick Vomer

Datz retard sur


12 posted on 08/06/2013 12:21:31 AM PDT by Jeff Chandler (People are idiots.)
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To: 2ndDivisionVet

Where the can juice at?


13 posted on 08/06/2013 12:23:06 AM PDT by novascotianative
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To: 2ndDivisionVet

It is this kind of nonsense that is keeping blacks down. It is a form of patronizing and pandering. They should be ashamed. If you don’t speak standard English in this country, you cannot get a good job. What kind of English does Obama speak?


14 posted on 08/06/2013 12:24:21 AM PDT by Essie
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To: 2ndDivisionVet
"Black" english. Really.

I wonder what the "Black" English citizens think of that.

With decades of abuse heaped upon those who were continually derided for speaking "Country" or "Southern"/"Redneck"/"Hick" as being somehow of below-par intelligence thereby, this Preferentially Objectified Scuzzbucket (POS) somehow thinks that makes that troglodyte-appearing numbskull just simply misunderstood and really actually "normal" somehow?

Words fail Me...

15 posted on 08/06/2013 12:25:05 AM PDT by Utilizer (Ba-con Ah'hkkba'aar! (although Hersheys come in a close second))
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To: al baby

Supposing it is, then what? Whatever you may call it, it’s highly influential in the larger society. I think it’s a mistake to equate the mode of expression with the dissembling that seemed evident in this witness’ testimony. I’m a diehard universalist. People are people, politics aside.


16 posted on 08/06/2013 12:25:14 AM PDT by dr_lew
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To: dr_lew
You is what you is.

You ain't what you not.

She be talkin' like some nappy-head fool, so nobody wit' a real brain be fooled by pretenden' she aint. If you looks like a stop-sign, don' matter 'f somebody paints u purples. You jus' aint raht an mos' ev'bady knows it.

17 posted on 08/06/2013 12:32:09 AM PDT by Utilizer (Ba-con Ah'hkkba'aar! (although Hersheys come in a close second))
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To: 2ndDivisionVet

18 posted on 08/06/2013 12:35:12 AM PDT by BerryDingle (I know how to deal with communists, I still wear their scars on my back from Hollywood-Ronald Reagan)
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To: Utilizer

Sounds like it comes pretty naturally to you.

No’m sayin’ ? Whoop, there it is.


19 posted on 08/06/2013 12:35:46 AM PDT by dr_lew
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To: Utilizer

Some black parents do not insist on proper English and this is what happens.

Its not black English its poor parenting.

My parents insisted my brothers & sisters speak well.
We don’t use slang like the n word because we were raised not to.

My mom will still correct my 30 something sister’s language.


20 posted on 08/06/2013 12:38:44 AM PDT by RginTN
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