When Warren D. was accused of sexual assault, he asked the police, “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog?” He was asking for an attorney during questioning, his constitutional right. Whether through a true misunderstanding or a pretended one, the police decided he had not asked for a lawyer but a “lawyer dog,” and he was denied his rights. This was in 2017.
In 2007, an appeals court dissent questioned whether a witness’s statement “he finna shoot me” referred to a past event. In fact, it’s completely straightforward that “finna” refers to the immediate future.
Black English is not an ungrammatical version of standard American English. Nor is it simply English with African-American slang thrown in. It is an alternative, although generally understandable, version of English. It has its own grammatical structures and rules, and there is no scientific reason to judge it a faulty version of the language. Moreover, it is extremely widespread across the nation, with only minor regional differences, according to a recent article in The Atlantic.
Yet an upcoming study in the journal Language found that court stenographers, for example, may be misunderstanding and mis-transcribing Black English in our courts. In the study, 27 Philadelphia stenographers were given recordings of Black English to transcribe. On average, they made errors in two of every five sentences. And, they could only paraphrase one in three of those sentences accurately.
Since stenographers are trained to listen closely and accurately, it seems likely that police and other court officials misunderstand Black English even more often.
The truth is, millions of Americans speak Black English alongside standard English. It seems straightforward that the police and the courts need to understand this language accurately, if only because a misunderstanding could result in the miscarriage of justice.
Yet people continue to insist that Black English isn’t real, or important. In 2010, the Drug Enforcement Administration tried to recruit Black English speakers to translate wiretapped conversation. We don’t know if they were successful at recruiting any speakers, but the reaction from the media was to deride the effort.
If African-Americans’ speech is routinely misunderstood in investigations and in court, that could be one explanation for why they are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. We should — must — insist upon better.