Parallel Lives, Two Realities: Rachel Jeantel Speaks

By A. G. Moore

I wrote this blog about two years ago. It addresses the testimony of  Rachel Jeantel, witness at George Zimmerman’s murder trial.

As I listen to the commentary about Rachel Jeantel and her digressions from “standard” English, I wonder about the collective blinders her critics are wearing–and about their determined avoidance of the obvious issue raised by Ms. Jeantel’s usage: parallel cultures exist in the U.S. because of economic, social and racial isolation.

In 1912, George Bernard Shaw wrote a play called Pygmalion, which has enjoyed more recent incarnations as My Fair Lady. Most of us know the story: a young woman is taken from the poor precincts of London and groomed to pass as a member of the British upper class. Foremost in this process is a transformation of the woman’s almost incomprehensible cockney dialect into the more refined vernacular of the British ruling class. In a sense, Shaw wrote the story of Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in a Florida courtroom long before she was born. That’s because the story is as old as social organization itself. People arrange themselves into insiders and outsiders (see my blog on Robert E.Park). Class hierarchies are formed based on conspicuous differences

In 2011, John Logan and Brian Stults, of Brown and Florida State Universities, analyzed the results of the 2010 U. S. census. The researchers came up with interesting results. While a few cities, such as New York and St. Louis, showed a decline in segregation, others showed an increase. Among the more segregated cities was Miami, which, according to the Logan/Stults analysis, became significantly more socially and culturally divided between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

The New York Times published its own analysis of segregation trends in the U. S. and the relationship of these trends to social mobility. The article described how some cities had intrinsic geographic barriers to social mobility and how these barriers impeded the ability of groups to move from one income class to another. The city highlighted in the article was Atlanta, Ga, but Miami was also given a poor social mobility score.

So what does this have to do with language? Well, besides what we all know instinctively as we accept Shaw’s Pygmalion story line, there’s a body of research which describes how dialects evolve within a society. Racially and socially isolated communities develop distinct cultures. Linguists look at the isolation of different groups and their social cohesiveness to assess whether or not the trend in that group would be to adopt standard language forms or to adhere to a non standard dialect. One study, carried out in Reading, England, is enlightening.

There is a phenomenon called “leveling” that has to take place if a dialect is to slowly disappear. Leveling simply means that differences between regional dialects and standard forms of language flattened so that one blends into the other. A couple of factors work against leveling. One of them is lack of social mobility: if groups do not have contact with one another then there is not likely to be the influence on language which would bring about leveling. This conclusion pretty much makes sense to even the non-scientist. However, there is another factor which has an impact on leveling: group cohesion.

The researchers looked at groups from different economic sectors who lived in essentially the same geographic setting (Reading). It turns out that lower income people tender to cling more tenaciously to group identity and part of group identity is language. As the researchers see it, this tendency to remain within a group is related to individual survival. Poorer people feel less secure and  need the support structure of their group. As incomes increase and survival becomes more certain, group support becomes less important and people are inclined to let go of group identifiers, such as language. In times of stress, mutual support of group members becomes essential and this is a kind of glue which reinforces group characteristics.

Now, back to Rachel Jeantel, who has lived in Miami for all of her 19 years. As the data shows, Miami is a city with a low social mobility quotient. Group identity is likely to be strong. Ms. Jeantel delivered her court testimony in mostly non-standard English. She delivered it in the vernacular of her group, of her community. Many who heard her took her lack of standard usage as a sign that she was not intelligent. But besides her usage, nothing about her presentation suggested a lack of cognitive alertness. She held her own against an aggressive and demeaning lawyer, someone skilled at courtroom interrogation. She delivered consistent testimony. Her thought process was not muddled.

While I cannot discuss Ms. Jeantel’s individual life circumstance–for I know very little about it–I can say that the English dialect she used is, like all dialects, a product of long-standing social and economic factors.

John McWhorter, linguistics scholar at Columbia University in New York, says of Ms. Jeantel: “…her English is perfect. It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley.” Dr. McWhorter then goes on to explain the rules that govern Black English–rules Ms. Jeantel apparently commands very well.

Black English, the variation of standard English used by Rachel Jeantel, is an established dialect. It is as legitimate as other established dialects, such as Cockney (England) or Hiberno-English (Ireland). What many who listened to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony forgot was this: just because someone doesn’t talk like you doesn’t mean they’re not smart like you. And to think otherwise is to show your lack of sophistication, not theirs.

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