Could Black English Mean a Prison Sentence?

By John McWhorter | The Atlantic

A black man on the phone from a jail in San Francisco said, in 2015, “He come tell ’bout I’m gonna take the TV,” which meant that this man was not going to do so. The transcriber listening in couldn’t understand the first part, apparently, and recorded the whole statement as “I’m gonna take the TV.”

It’s impossible to know how often mistakes of this sort occur, but chances are they’re common. An upcoming study in the linguistics journal Language found that 27 Philadelphia stenographers, presented with recordings of Black English grammatical patterns, made transcription errors on average in two out of every five sentences, and could accurately paraphrase only one in three sentences.

The Black English gap, as one might call it, matters: It can affect people’s lives at crucial junctures. In 2007, a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dissent claimed that when a black woman said, in terror, “He finna shoot me,” she may have been referring to something in the past, when in fact “finna” refers to the immediate future. “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog?” Warren Demesme asked the police when accused of sexual assault in 2017. The statements one makes to law enforcement after requesting a lawyer are inadmissible—but Demesme’s rights were ignored because, it was argued, he’d requested a “lawyer dog,” not an actual attorney.

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