University of Pittsburgh
October 16, 2013

Did Linguistic Misunderstandings Affect the Outcome of the Trayvon Martin Case?

International sociolinguistics conference cohosted by Pitt and CMU to present Oct. 19 panel on African American language, race, and identity
Conference will also include panel for educators on African American language

PITTSBURGH—Did the use of “African American language” during the trial of George Zimmerman inadvertently influence the outcome of the nationally prominent case?

That question and others hinging on issues of race, language, and culture will be considered Oct. 19 during the panel “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?” Featuring a lineup of internationally renowned scholars, the panel is just one highlight of the New Ways of Analyzing Variation conference hosted by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University Oct. 17-20. The largest sociolinguistics conference in North America, New Ways of Analyzing Variation is expected to draw more than 350 attendees from across the United States and abroad. The panel, which is free and open to the public, will be presented at noon Oct. 19 in McConomy Auditorium on the Carnegie Mellon University campus in Oakland.

“How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?” will discuss the trial of George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer who was tried for murder in the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin. The controversial case attracted international media attention, prompting widespread discussion on issues of race and perceptions of African Americans. Zimmerman was acquitted on July 13, 2013.

The focus of the panel will be the legal and broader cultural responses to recordings of 911 calls presented during the trial and to the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, a friend whom Martin called while being followed by Zimmerman. At issue during the panel will be the question of whether Jeantel’s use of African American language in her testimony was misunderstood by the court transcriptionist and others, both inside and outside the legal system, potentially damaging the prosecution’s case against Zimmerman.

Issues of race and language are more relevant and timely than ever, said Shelome Gooden, Pitt associate professor of linguistics and a conference organizer along with Scott Kiesling, Pitt associate professor of linguistics; Amanda Godley, associate professor in Pitt’s School of Education; and Barbara Johnstone of Carnegie Mellon University.

“It’s not that African Americans speak differently because they’re black, but that they’re black and speak differently,” Gooden said. “It’s unfortunate when those things combine in a legal system that doesn’t recognize these differences.”

Moderated by Larry E. Davis, dean of Pitt’s School of Social Work, the panel will feature a number of well-respected sociolinguistics scholars, each of whom will address a specific aspect of the case. 

John R. Rickford, professor of linguistics at Stanford University and the author of several books on African American language, along with Stanford graduate student Sharese King, will discuss the role that language played in the trial and in media discussions of the case. Sonja Lanehart, of the University of Texas at San Antonio, will place Jeantel’s testimony in the context of African American language. John Baugh, of Washington University in St. Louis, will address legal aspects of the case. And Denise Troutman of Michigan State University will consider gender issues at play in the trial.

Another Saturday panel of interest to the general public—especially professional educators—is “What Educators Need to Know About Youth Language and Identities.” The panel focuses on differences between “standard English,” taught in schools, and African American language, spoken by many students. 

The education panel will be held at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 19 in McConomy Auditorium on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Oakland. Registration is $40. Attendees who are professional educators are eligible for continuing education credit under Pennsylvania’s Act 48. The panel is sponsored by Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems in the School of Social Work and the University’s Center for Urban Education.

Visit http://www.nwav42.pitt.edu for more information about the conference.

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10/16/13/klf/cjhm