On his way home from a 7-Eleven in February 2012, Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by his neighborhood watch coordinator, George Zimmerman, within the walls of his gated community. In the minutes leading up to his death, Martin remained on the phone with his friend Rachel Jeantel, relaying his attempt to flee from Zimmerman and the escalation of their altercation.
The trial that ensued the following summer was widely publicized and deeply divisive. Zimmerman claimed his motive was self-defense, but Jeantel’s testimony of her phone call with Martin suggested otherwise: Jeantel alleged that Martin was trying to escape Zimmerman, not assault him, and that the call ended abruptly after Martin repeated “get off, get off.” But Jeantel, who spoke African American English with Haitian Creole influence, was met with skepticism and criticism as jurors deemed her nonstandard accent and dialect “hard to understand” and “not credible.” In the next 16 hours of jury deliberation, Jeantel’s testimony was never mentioned, and by the end of the trial, the prosecution had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was not acting in self-defense. The jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of murder charges.
Outrage ensued, with protesters flocking the streets to condemn police brutality and the court’s failure to hold Zimmerman accountable. While their criticism was warranted, solely indicting racist policing practices would overlook the dismissal of the unpopular witness, Rachel Jeantel, and the generations of linguistic profiling that flipped this case.
Some millennium and a half ago, English first branched out from its Anglo-Saxon roots and began spreading into distinct varieties worldwide. In the United States, variation in English spelling and grammar was nothing unusual prior to the 20th century. Standardization — a conscious effort to establish a “correct” set of grammatical structures, spellings and pronunciations — began only in the early 1900s, when the term “General American English” was coined and popularized by George Philip Krapp and John Samuel Kenyon respectively. (Both Krapp and Kenyon happened to be White men from Ohio, by the way.) Kenyon’s 1944 publication “A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English” quickly became the national standard for broadcasting and hiring practices. From then on, white English authors established the conventions for English grammar due to their overwhelmingly greater access to publishing.
Yet today, English spoken in New York still varies quite a bit from English spoken in New Orleans. This is because divergence has always been inevitable in language evolution. Over time, regions developed idiosyncratic quirks, shaped by the unique fusion of historical, social and cultural puzzle pieces from each area. Some variations were so commonly spoken that they evolved into autonomous dialects. African American English, for example, originated from West African languages and English pidgin spoken by enslaved Africans, while Hispanic Vernacular English drew heavy influence from Spanish. Considering they come with distinctive vocabularies, pronunciations and structures, comprehending a dialectal speaker — such as Rachel Jeantel when she testified using African American English — can be challenging for the unfamiliar.
But that hardly explains the court’s reaction. According to Juror B37 in her interview with CNN, she found Jeantel’s speech not just “hard to understand,” but also “not credible” — which begs the question, since when did comprehensibility have anything to do with credibility? How did speech become less trustworthy just because it sounds different from our own?
Psychologists and linguists have been asking those questions for years. One research study prompted native English speakers and non-native speakers with Turkish, Polish, German, Italian and Korean accents to record the same set of banal statements, such as “Ants don’t sleep.” Those with foreign accents were perceived as less truthful, with the heaviest accents rated least believable and native speakers rated most believable. In another study, managers conducting phone-based job interviews gave candidates with Chinese, Mexican or Indian accents lower ratings for customer-facing roles than non-customer-facing roles; however, applicants with British accents, notably men, received similar or even better ratings than their American English counterparts.
Unfortunately, linguistic prejudice is so entrenched in our social fabric that its presence is ubiquitous and normalized. While the standardization of any language has undeniably practical applications, silencing speakers of non-standard varieties is an incredibly dangerous thing to do. The belief that there exists only one “right” way of speaking a language has led to judgments of character, education and intellect towards those who do not adhere to that standard, such as people who speak dialects or non-native language learners. These systemic repercussions have far-reaching consequences not only in the courtroom, but everywhere that speech matters, including education, employment, housing and health care.
Nearly a decade has passed since Zimmerman’s verdict. In that time, our cultural landscape has shifted considerably, but despite rising conversations about systemic racism and societal inequities, we have rarely reevaluated the biases we hold toward each other for the way we speak. Perhaps that is not a coincidence. The fact that speech is intangible is exactly what makes it such an easy target for assumptions — and what makes those assumptions such ambiguous acts of discrimination.
Among the qualities that distinguish us from other species, perhaps none are as significant as our capacity for communication. Our languages are intimately tied to our identities, and the way we speak is a mosaic of who we are and where we come from. The worst thing we can do, in all of our efforts toward propriety and precision, is erase what makes us most human.