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Hearing Rachel Jeantel and Vernacular Speakers

Sharese King, University of Chicago

March 31, 2021 · 4:30 pm6:00 pm · via Zoom

Program in Linguistics

Rachel Jeantel was the leading prosecution witness when George Zimmerman was tried for killing Trayvon Martin. Despite the importance of her testimony, her speech was scrutinized and read as uneducated and incomprehensible. Contrary to the belief that Rachel’s speech was “ungrammatical,” we show that, like other African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speakers, Jeantel follows systematic linguistic patterns, which are consistent across AAVE speakers throughout the United States. In addition to assessing her speech, we discuss the implications of being an AAVE speaker in the courtroom, revealing gaps in research on the intelligibility of AAVE. This discussion ends with suggestions on what can be done to reduce the inequities AAVE speakers face in the courtroom.


Prof. Sharese King is a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago. She received her PhD from Stanford University and her BA from The University of Rochester. Her research interests include the study of racialized language across African American communities. To date, she has done fieldwork in Rochester, NY and Bakersfield, CA. You can read some of her latest work in Language, The Journal of Sociolinguistics, and The Los Angeles Times.




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