Ron Roenicke / AP

Could Black English Mean a Prison Sentence?

A new study presented 27 Philadelphia court stenographers with recordings of Black English grammatical patterns; the stenographers, the study found, 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, John McWhorter wrote in January, can affect people’s lives at crucial junctures: “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.”


First, we appreciate the principle implicit within both Mr. McWhorter’s and the study’s content: that court reporters are an indispensable part of the judicial process. We agree with the importance of interrupting when proceedings are not fully intelligible, as the resulting transcript imports verity to all who review it. Only a human being, charged with care of the record, is capable of instantly determining unintelligible speech and pausing the proceedings for clarification.

We support the goal of improvement within the legal system to protect the rights of those in the system. Court reporters are the last line of defense for the public against process abuse. Our absolute devotion to impartiality and accuracy is designed to ensure a reliable record for readers one day or 100 years later.

This study did not use live testimony, which court reporters use when they do their job. Audio recordings were played and they were asked to transcribe them and then asked to paraphrase the statements. In our job, court reporters do not interpret; we do not paraphrase. The very nature of our work demands that we not place our subjective judgment of what an utterance should be, or what may have been intended, over what is actually said.

In testimony that is difficult for a given listener to understand, there are options available to the court reporter and participants: (1) interrupting to gain clarity; (2) engagement of a qualified interpreter to ensure that meaning is conveyed accurately; and (3) consulting the court reporter’s real-time display of the transcript to resolve potential misunderstandings. (Only court reporters can provide such real-time displays.) We note that none of these vital options appeared to be available in the foundational study.

Protection of the measured and faithful administration of justice is the basis for court reporters’ very presence in the judicial process. Our system of jurisprudence demands that justice be blind, but justice cannot be deaf. We offer our support and expertise for opportunities that help ensure that words spoken on the record are accurately preserved.

Sue Terry
National Court Reporters Association President

Melissa Keating
NCRA Member and Pennsylvania Court Reporters Association President
Reston, Va.


This is something white people, especially those living in diverse areas, should make it a point to understand!

Lynne Miller
Oakland, California


In every country, speaking nonstandard varieties of the country’s official language entails disadvantages. I am not very familiar with the situation in the U.S., but I have encountered this sort of issue in several European countries. The author, in typical American fashion, seeks to frame this matter as a question of racism. But this is a parochial standpoint that reflects a fashionable preoccupation with identity politics.

Carl Stoll
San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina


John McWhorter’s article only touches the edge of a bigger issue. At Timberwolf Litigation, we assist inmates with post-conviction issues. We have customers who are poor and white as well as poor and Hispanic who have problems with their court transcripts. Typically they also have trouble explaining their case to us and have misunderstood what their criminal and appeal lawyers tried to tell them. Usually this means they will spend time in prison.

Innocent or guilty, once people are targeted by law enforcement, they seem to stand little chance of prevailing if their ability to use the “language of the oppressor” is compromised by regional or ethnic dialect. Justice may be blind, but what she hears and understands is a whole different matter.

James Houk
Director of Research
Timberwolf Litigation and Research Services
Dayton, Ohio


John McWhorter replies:

The misinterpretations I refer to are the result of simple misunderstanding, as is Carl Stoll’s idea that I am accusing stenographers of racism. Frankly, those familiar with my writing would find the characterization of me as harboring a “fashionable preoccupation with identity politics” laughable at best. That such dialect-related misinterpretations happen as the result of dialect differences beyond the United States is very much what one would expect, and those misinterpretations ought be addressed as urgently as the ones that Black English can create here.

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