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Vernacular speakers' words discounted in courtrooms

John Rickford

When George Zimmerman was tried for the homicide of Trayvon Martin, the testimony of Rachel Jeantel was critical to the prosecution’s case – but was ignored by the jury. According to linguist John Rickford this happened because Jeantel speaks African-American Vernacular English.

On Sept. 15, Rickford will present a University Lecture discussing the potentially devastating consequences caused by mishearings and misjudgments of dialect speakers in courtrooms, police encounters, job interviews and elsewhere. The talk, “Justice for Jeantel (and Trayvon): Fighting Dialect Prejudice in Courtrooms and Beyond,” will be at 4:30 p.m. in Rhodes•Rawlings Auditorium, Klarman Hall. A reception will follow; the lecture is free, and the public is welcome.

“A leading national and international linguistics scholar, John Rickford is at the same time always engaged in the social, cultural and political dimensions of his work,” said Abby Cohn, professor of linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a great honor to welcome him to Cornell.”

Rickford’s primary research focus is the relation between linguistic variation and change and social structure. He is especially interested in the relationship between language and ethnicity, social class and style, language variation and change, pidgin and creole languages, African-American Vernacular English, and the applications of linguistics to educational problems.

Rickford is the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Linguistics and the Humanities at Stanford University. He received his bachelor's degree in sociolinguistics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1971, and his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979.

His publications include “Dimensions of a Creole Continuum” and “African American Vernacular English: Features, Evolution, Educational Implications.” “Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English,” which he co-authored with his son, Russell Rickford, Cornell associate professor of history, won the American Book Award in 2000. His forthcoming book is “Variation and Change in Sociolinguistics and Creole Studies: Theory and Analysis.” He is a fellow of the Linguistic Society of America and served as its president in 2015.

A discussion with Rickford especially for students will be held Friday, Sept. 16, from 12:20 to 1:10 p.m. in 106 Morrill Hall.

Rickford’s visit is sponsored by the University Lectures Committee and hosted by the Department of Linguistics.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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