How long is a minute, exactly?
Common Pleas Court Judge Kai Scott, thinking of courtroom scenarios, offered the phrase: “She was there for a minute.”
“A person who’s hearing it could think that person meant an actual minute,” Scott said. “But a minute, if you’re in the black community, could be an hour. It could be six hours. A minute is a long time.”
Situations like these were on the table last week at “Why Language Matters,” a closed event for Philly judges. Dozens of judges filled the room to workshop issues of miscomprehension of African American English.
Their discussion was inspired by a recent study of Philadelphia court reporters. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, plus a co-founder of the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, asked 27 court reporters to transcribe and paraphrase clips of African American speech. At the sentence-level, two out of every five transcriptions had mistakes.
The study raised serious concerns about errors in court records, but also, legal experts observed, about language access in the court system.
“That was a big theme — that everyone deserves to have equal access to justice,” Scott, who co-chairs the Board of Judges’ judicial education committee, said of Thursday’s event. “If this is something that’s an impediment to equal access to justice, we need to figure out what we need to do to make sure that it’s not.”
All but one panelist was a lawyer or judge, the outlier being Penn linguist Taylor Jones, a coauthor of the court reporters study. Other perspectives came from two Common Pleas Court judges, a defense attorney, a prosecutor, and chief defender Keir Bradford-Grey.
Among attendees, Scott said, some judges considered the dialect to be more like slang or lingo. That conclusion contradicts linguistic research, which maintains that it’s a variety of English with its own grammatical system.
For example, with a phrase like “She steady telling everybody business,” the speaker is referring to a specific someone who is consistently talking about other people.
Idioms, too, may cause confusion, and so can the accents and tones of speech. Hitting a falsetto in conversation, with a reaction like “say WHAT!” for example, is a feature that’s more common in African American English than the standard variety, according to Jones.
One panelist shared an anecdote that a witness had identified a man, but later testified that the witness didn’t really “know him like that." In classroom American English, that might seem contradictory. But in African American English, it means that they’re not friends, or even associates.
The findings of the court reporter study have sparked debate over the possible use of dialect interpreters. Witnesses who speak nonstandard English dialects aren’t provided translators as foreign language speakers who struggle to testify in English sometimes are. Other American Englishes that might be considered for interpreters include Appalachian English and Pennsylvania Dutch English.
In an interview last week after the event, judicial education committee co-chairs Scott and Common Pleas Court Judge Mia Roberts Perez shared thoughts on solutions with President Judge Idee Fox. The trio weighed implications, and overall, leaned toward interpreters, but none saw that option as a silver bullet.
Scott is fluent in African American English and grew up in South Philadelphia. Perez hails from Germantown and grew up with Spanglish. Fox also claims South Philly, and pronounces ricotta as “ree-GOTE” and cavatelli as “ga-va-DEEL,” as she learned in her neighborhood. The matter, they explained, is delicate for judges who don’t want to leave the impression that they’re influencing a jury.
The judges noted factors that complicate use of an interpreter. Some witnesses appear insulted when given a translator, and some jurors seem to get distracted by interpreters or appear less engaged.
If funding were of no concern, Perez said, then the ideal scenario would be to hire enough translators for Philadelphia’s diverse mix of communities, including those that speak African American English.
“That sounds like a very large number of interpreters,” Perez cautioned. “And I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I just don’t know if that’s necessarily the most efficient thing, either.”
Fox responded: “I don’t know if it’s interpreters for every time. Because I don’t know if it is as much ... being open to someone speaking differently.”
At the event, they had discussed the impacts of stereotypes. Through grammar judgments, Fox said, listeners might make assumptions about the speaker’s intelligence or class background. Those biases could make a listener assume criminality. “To me, the training is so much more getting stereotypes and those types of attitudes out.”
Scott chimed in: “There has to be a combination of those things. You may not know what that word means, what that phrase means, what that concept means, and from this person, in their culture, in that community, for this particular setting, or the story that he or she may be trying to tell you.”
The authors of the study on court transcriptionists discourage interpreters.
“Most people who speak a different dialect of English tend to assume that they understand what they’re hearing when they hear [African American English] whether or not they actually do,” said Jones, who noted that translators also can undermine credibility. “In a perfect world, it might be reasonable. But I think there’s so many issues with it that it could potentially do a lot of damage.”
For the initial study, the team included sociologist Jessica Kalbfeld, linguists Robin Clark and Jones, and attorney Ryan Hancock. The next step is to research more nonstandard dialects. But with African American English, it’s difficult to say how much of the stigmas are (or aren’t) due to race.
“Racial and linguistic bias are also hard to tease apart because language is part of how we construct race as social concept,” Jones said.
Fox said local judges and lawyers are considering another event on how to correct the record when language is misunderstood.
And Qawi Abdul-Rahman, a panelist at the judges’ event, said a similar conversation for Philly attorneys is in the works. It’s a lawyer’s task, he said, to clarify that “a ‘four pound’ is a .45 gun, not four pounds of butter,” or even to explain nicknaming traditions.
It’s also important, he said, to have a command of what your client is actually saying.