Could Black English Mean a Prison Sentence?

Court stenographers often misunderstand Black English, and their mistakes could affect people’s lives at crucial junctures.

A stenographer takes notes.
Haraz Ghanbari / AP

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.

Black people are overrepresented within the criminal-justice system, and race relations in America will never truly budge until “equality under the law” is more than a quaint phrase. But equality is, of course, impossible if the black people grappling with courts and imprisonment are routinely misunderstood.

Transcription mistakes can happen quite innocently. As far back as the 1930s, white men and women tasked with transcribing recordings of ex-slaves produced error-ridden manuscripts. One man was supposed to have said that after Emancipation Day, “the colored people sure went for!,” which sounds odd grammatically and substantively; why wouldn’t ex-slaves have been “for” their freedom? It turned out that the man was saying that ex-slaves “sure been poor,” a straightforward statement.

I thought of this recently when I was staying at a hotel and asked a black woman working at the front desk where I could get a cup of coffee. When she pointed toward the restaurant, I said it was closed. Then she pointed more directly to a table with coffee urns near the restaurant—I was sleepy and hadn’t seen it—and she said, with warm irony, “Dat table, dey close?” Her utterance could easily have thrown a foreigner, given that in Black English you can leave out the are of Are they closed? and the final -d of closed. Even some native English speakers may have misheard her without a certain amount of familiarity with the dialect.

When someone in a position of authority draws attention to the differences between standard and Black English, the response is often perplexity and derision. That was true in 2010 when the Drug Enforcement Administration put out a call for Black English translators so the agency could better understand conversations on wiretaps. Some in the media, poking fun at the whole project, suggested that Black English is simply a collection of slang words or even just a sloppy way of enunciating. The pervasive assumption was that black speech differs from mainstream speech only in some spicy lingo plus various instances of “broken” grammar.

In fact, Black English is not deficient but alternate. There is no scientific basis for judging Black English grammatical structures as faulty or unclear, and a Martian assigned to learn English who happened to land on the South Side of Chicago rather than in Scarsdale, New York, would have the same challenge in mastering the rules and nuances of the local speech. For example, the come in “He come tell ’bout I’m gonna take the TV” is used to convey indignation, and has inspired a linguistics article itself. Miss this and the man’s whole meaning is lost—and to his possible detriment.

Even those who accept that Black English is more than slang may feel that a translation approach is unwarranted, condescending, or both. Sometimes it may be. In 1996, the Oakland, California, school district proposed to use Black English in the classroom as a sort of training wheel. The idea was that kids raised with Black English as a home language had trouble learning to read because standard English was so unfamiliar. But many (including me) thought that was a misdiagnosis: Black people, including kids, use Black English alongside standard English rather than exclusively.

The transcription issue is different. Most stenographers have not grown up with the bidialectal experience of poor black people and are thus encountering something genuinely unfamiliar, which they may not know how to get down on paper properly.

The solution here is not difficult. People who will spend their careers transcribing phrases such as “He come tell ’bout I’m gonna take the TV”—or even “Dat table, dey close?”—ought to learn the basics of how Black English works. They would need mastery of only about 25 grammatical traits, which are universal in Black English nationwide, despite local differences. For example, be, when used in a sentence such as She be there on Sunday, refers to something regular and habitual, as in “every Sunday,” and is not simply a randomly unconjugated be. Another example: We had went to the store then I got a text conveys that the person was still in the store when the text came, not that it came after he left.

“Dat table, dey close?” is a passing anecdote, but “I’m gonna take the TV” could be the prelude to a man going to prison. A linguistically sophisticated America would understand that these speech patterns are not a pathology; they are the vessel of as much clarity and nuance as those of a privileged college kid. A sophisticated America would make sure those charged with distributing these words to the public sphere, or to a judge and jury, were aware of that fact.