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Raciolinguistic and Sociolinguistic Variation in US Schools, Courts and Society

[Extended Abstract for plenary at ICL20, International Congress of Linguists, July 2-6, 2018, Capetown, S. Africa]

John R. Rickford, Stanford University, April 3, 2018

In this plenary, I will draw on more a half century of research (e.g., from Labov et al 1968, Baratz and Shuy 1969, to Alim et al 2016, Rickford and King 2016) to address our theoretical understandings of the roles of race and class in sociolinguistic variation, and our applied efforts to curtail the discrimination and injustice experienced by African American and other vernacular speakers in schools, police interactions, courtrooms, job hunts and other aspects of social life.

On the theoretical and descriptive side, although social class/socioeconomic status was at the heart of the genesis of quantitative sociolinguistics in the 1960s (Labov 1966, Wolfram 1969), it has rarely been pursued since then (but see Dodson 2009, Rickford 2018), and indeed, many students voice the opinion that the kinds of "large scale social processes" it reflects are irrelevant with the emergence of small scale, ethnographic studies. However, class does remain very relevant to sociolinguistic variation, and recent models of social class variation in sociology (e.g. Boyd and Nam 2015) offer new strategies for pursuing it, as the work of Flores-Bayer (2017) demonstrates. Other theoretical issues that have never been adequately explored are the nature of ethnicity as a sociolinguistic boundary (cf. Rickford 1985) and the question of why and how race came to triumph over class as the basis of socio-political action and speech alignment in the US. Blake's (198x) dissertation addresses this to some extent, contrasting the ways in which poor whites and rich whites came to be sociopolitically aligned in the US as 18th and 19th century planters armed poor whites to suppress Black slave rebellions. And I was reminded of the greater salience of class in the US while watching a new film (March 2018) about Mexican American farm worker activist Dolores Huerta ( in which white Teamsters Union members were brought in to break up a strike by Mexican American members of the United Farm Workers Union in California. These Teamsters, representatives of America's "strongest" union (, fought with and voiced racist insults about the farm workers while ignoring the commonalities between them in terms of class and union interests.

On the applied side, we have only recently begun to document the extent to which speakers of African American Vernacular English [AAVE] are discriminated against in US courtrooms because of jurors' unfamiliarity with and prejudice against their dialect. Rickford and King (2016) demonstrate, for instance, that the vital courtroom testimony of Rachel Jeantel* in the 2013 Florida trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin was neither understood nor believed—and ultimately disregarded by jurors—mainly because it was delivered in AAVE. Zimmerman's acquittal in turn sparked the Black Lives Matter movement (Lebron 2017). Jones et al (2018) provide other compelling evidence that US court reporters cannot be relied upon to provide reliable records of the testimony of AAVE speakers. Other cases from the US, UK and the Caribbean suggest that this is part of a more general problem, exacerbated when the speaker is a person of color (i.e. when their language is “raced”), but also if/when they are poor or rural.   And Voigt et al (2016) demonstrate that race is the salient basis of the relative respect shown (through language) to motorists stopped by Oakland police officers, regardless of whether the police officers are themselves Black or White. Finally, there is recent evidence (Hannah Jones 2016, Harris and Curtis 2018) that re-segregation is increasing in the US since court-ordered efforts against it have been relaxed, with dire consequences for literacy education and unjust incarceration among Black and Brown populations. How linguists can best respond to these challenges is something we need to decide and act on. Issues of segregation loom large in the history of South Africa. It is troubling to see that the American variety of this is resurrecting its ugly self--a challenge for applied raciolinguists (Alim, Rickford and Ball 2017) and sociolinguists to address.

* Rachel Jeantel is a fluent exemplar of AAVE, but for the past year I have been Skypeing with her to help her improve and extend her reading skills. I have been aided in this by Labov’s linguistically sensitive Reading Road manual, Rosa Park's biography (Rosa Parks: My Story), and valuable inputs from Angela Rickford, a professor of reading and special education at San Jose State University.  The experience has convinced me that while we must redouble our efforts to get societies and its key institutions to be more accommodating to and receptive of dialect speakers, we also need to offer assistance to vernacular speakers (if desired) to be more linguistically versatile, in the sense of mastering reading as well as speaking, and developing the ability to code-switch in schools, courts and workplaces when appropriate. This is another area of Applied Sociolinguistics that merits further discussion and strategizing.


Alim , H. Samy, John R. Rickford, and Arnetha Ball, ed. 2016. Raciolinguistics: How Language Shapes our Ideas about Race. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baratz, Joan C., and Roger W. Shuy, eds. 1969. Teaching Black Children to Read. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Davis et al 2018

Dodson, Robin. 2009. Modeling socioeconomic class in variationist sociolinguistics. Language and Linguistics Compass 3.5:1314-1327.

Flores-Bayer, Isla. 2017.  Sociolinguistic Variation in Practice: An Ethnographic Study of Stylistic Variation and Social Meaning in the Chicano English of 'El Barrio.' PhD dissertation, Department of Linguistics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

Hannah-Jones, Nikole. 2014. Segregation Now ... Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama show how separate and unequal education is coming back. The Atlantic.

Harris, Fred, and Alan Curtis. 2018. The unmet promise of equality. New York Times Feb 28, 2018.

Jones, Taylor, Jessica Kalbfeld, Ryan Hancock, Robin Clark.  2018, under review.  Testifying while Black:  An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania.

Labov, William. 1966. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Labov, William, Paul Cohen, Clarence Robins, and John Lewis. 1968. A study of the non-standard English of Negro and Puerto-Rican speakers in New York City. Final report, cooperative research project 3288. Vols. I and II. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: U.S. Regional Survey.

Lebron, Christopher J. 2017. The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rickford, John R. 2018. The continuing need for new approaches to social class analysis in sociolinguistics. In J.R. Rickford, Variation and Versatility in Sociolinguistics and Creole Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

Rickford, John R., and Sharese King. 2016. Language and linguistics on trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and other vernacular speakers) in the courtroom and beyond. Language 92.4:948-88.

Voight, Rob, Nicholas P. Camp, Vinodkumar Prabhakaran, William L. Hamilton, Rebecca C. Hetey, Camilla M. Griffiths, David Jurgens, Dan Jurafsky and Jennifer Eberhardt. (June) 2017. Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect. Proceedings of theNational Academy of Sciences [PNAS]

Wolfram, Walt .1969. A Linguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech. Washington DC: Center for Applied Linguistics

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