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Stanford linguist says prejudice toward African American dialect can result in unfair rulings

As outrage over the shooting deaths of African-American teens continues to fill the airwaves, Stanford linguistics Professor John Rickford says more attention needs to be paid to prejudices toward language differences in the judicial system.

When it comes to the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, in particular, Rickford said, "Widespread ignorance and hostility about authentic linguistic and cultural difference in America" led to a verdict that may well have been different had the key witness been better understood and viewed as more credible by the jury. 

George Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, claimed he acted in self-defense. Yet Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Martin before and during the altercation until minutes before his death, said Zimmerman was the instigator. Jeantel's testimony in the summer 2013 trial was key to the prosecution, but Rickford said prejudice diminished her impact.

Rickford, one of the world's leading experts on African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, said that Jeantel was misunderstood and discredited by the jury because of the way she talks.

Jeantel was subjected to cruel public commentary for her "ungrammatical blather." But Rickford noted that Jeantel is actually "fluent in a variety of English that's been in existence for centuries. She speaks a very systematic, regular variety of AAVE."

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