Understanding Rachel Jeantel
by John R. Rickford 
[6.28.13 blog, submitted to but not published in the Huffington Post]

Rachel Jeantel’s testimony this week in the George Zimmerman murder trial has come under blistering attack. On social media sites, people criticized her story as inconsistent and derided the way she talks. 

People seem to have forgotten that Zimmerman is on trial, not her, in the death of Trayvon Martin. 

But the disdain expressed for this 19 year old, a witness for the prosecution, revealed the widespread ignorance and hostility about authentic linguistic and cultural difference in America.  

Her testimony also constitutes a powerful indictment of public education in working class, predominantly minority communities,

Jeantel, like many working class African Americans, shows asymmetric linguistic competence.  She does understand standard English, as she emphasized in an exchange with defense attorney Don West.  

But she often speaks fluent African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, and transcribers, attorneys and jury members may have missed crucial elements in her testimony.  

She complained to West, “You cannot hear me that well, and “You are having trouble hearing me.”  And it wasn’t just because of her soft voice.  As she noted, “It’s how I speak.”  

On social media sites, people castigated Jeantel for her "slurred speech" or complained that, "Nobody can understand what she's saying."  

But speakers of AAVE and linguists who have studied this most distinctive variety for more than 50 years, knew exactly what she meant when she used systematic features like:

  • 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,” meaning He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.  
  • 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.”  
Some of these may not have caused actual problems of understanding in the courtroom, although the court stenographer often asked her to repeat her statements.  But they may have influenced the jury’s and the public’s ability to respect and believe her testimony, and to relate to her.   

One possible misunderstanding was crucial, however. 

In cross examination about her April 2012 interview with prosecuting attorney Bernie De la Rionda, where she had said that she heard someone saying, “Get off.”  

Asked, “Could you tell who was saying that?” the transcript reads, “I couldn’t know Trayvon” and then “I couldn’t hear Trayvon.”  Neither of these makes semantic sense in context.  

More importantly, when another linguist and I listened to the courtroom broadcast of the recording, we heard, instead, “I could, an’ it was Trayvon.”  Of course we would need to listen to a good recording, with good earphones and so on, to verify these words, even though Jeantel’s subsequent remarks then, as in the court Thursday, substantiated this interpretation. 

As was seen in Ebonics humor of the 90’s, language and “wit” provided convenient covers for the most racist, misogynistic and dehumanizing attacks on this young woman, devoid of any sensitivity to the fact that she was testifying about the murder of a friend she had known since kindergarten.  

Expressive though Jeantel is orally and in terms of facial expression and gestures (her eye rolls sometimes constituted a cross-examination of West himself), her reading skills do appear to be far below grade level.  This may have severely limited her ability to read transcripts of her earlier depositions that West put before her in the courtroom.  

She admitted on her second day that she could not read the cursive handwritten statement of hers from March 2012 that a friend had helped her write.  But she may not have been able to read print either, and some of her attitudinal bluster from the first day may have been intended to distract from her under-developed reading skills.

However, Jeantel’s limited literacy reflects the failure of public education in minority-dominant schools in Florida and across the U.S.  At her senior high school, Miami Norland,  (95 percent Black, 4 percent Hispanic, 1 percent nonwhite Hispanic) only 29 percent of 9th and 10th grade students passed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test 2 in Reading at grade level, in 2013.  

That means that about three out of every four students at her school read below grade level, compared with about one out of every two students in Florida more generally.  Almost anyone else from this school who had been called to testify might have fared as badly.

The larger and more important implication of this is that these appalling literacy rates are a savage indictment of the public education of students of color in urban public schools, not only in Florida but throughout the country.  

This is one unanticipated impact of Jeantel’s testimony that I hope we can all agree on, and set about trying to fix.