Dr. John Rickford: Social Justice for Jeantel (and Trayvon): Fighting Dialect Prejudice in Courtrooms and Beyond

By Fred Boehrer

Dr. John Rickford spoke to Holy Cross students and faculty members on Thursday, Feb. 17 in Rehm Library on Social Justice for Jeantel (and Trayvon): Fighting Dialect Prejudice in Courtrooms and Beyond. Prof. Meredith Pugh of the English department introduced Rickford and thanked the numerous sponsors, including Africana Studies Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Education Department, the English Department and the Political Science Department.

Rickford, a leading linguist and professor at Stanford University, spoke specifically about the ongoing issue of dialect prejudice, using the controversial case of Trayvon Martin as an example. Many associate the murder of Trayvon Martin as the spark of the Black Lives Matter movement. Rachel Jeantel, a very close friend of Trayvon Martin, was on the phone with Martin for close to five hours leading up to his death on Feb. 26, 2012. In the trial of George Zimmerman, Rickford believed the jury intentionally was not able to properly do their job because of Jeantel’s different dialect. Rickford stated, “the jury said they could not understand her and did not believe her,” and thus brought up two key doubts: “her intelligibility and her credibility.”

Despite the fact that Jeantel was the closest person to a witness to the murder of Trayvon, Rickford felt that the jury discredited her “solely because of her dialect.” Rickford drew a further correlation between the judgments of Jeantel’s dialect and the verdict of Zimmerman’s innocence. “In a sense Jeantel’s dialect was found guilty in a prelude to the partial cause of Zimmerman being found innocent,” said Rickford. Because of the lack of clear definition between language and dialect, at least within court systems, Rickford called for reform in which people speaking different dialects other than Standard English should be provided with an interpreter. Though some states offer dialect interpreters, he added, many judges will urge the defendant or witness to proceed without one in respect to time.

However, the issue of dialect prejudice is not only an English language problem. Rickford emphasized this point with examples of Italian and Scandinavian language dialects used by working class people in court cases, and specifically called attention to the work of Diana Eades, a leader in the field of sociolinguistics in Australia. One example highlighted an aboriginal who spoke a specific English dialect relating to his Australian origin. In the case, the aboriginal made a reference to a “half moon” shining, and tried to impugn the testimony, but there was an interpreter who knew that in this particular type of Australian English “half moon” in fact refers to a crescent moon. In another example, an aboriginal named Charcoal Jack made reference to a subject’s father, stating, “he was properly his father.” Because the stenographer was used to standard Australian English, she transcribed it as “he was probably his father,” creating misconstrued knowledge around the case.

In conclusion, Dr. Rickford took a brief moment to offer his take on the current racial divide across America. In an attempt to shed light and clarify the #BlackLivesMatter movement, he stated, “Black Lives Matter is an answer to the question: ‘Do Black lives matter?’ Not ‘which lives matter?’ They’re very different kinds of questions.” One can compare the debate of meaning behind the #BLM movement to the lack of clarity people speaking different dialects other than Standard English face in America’s courts. Rickford concluded by describing his life journey as using his knowledge of linguistics not only for education, but to serve the community and fight for justice across the country.

 

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