Plenary Address: Prof Susan Ehrlich

Raciolinguistic Enregisterment, Intersectionality and African American Masculinity in the Courtroom


In the aftermath of the 2013 trial in which George Zimmerman, a white man, was prosecuted for, and subsequently acquitted of, the murder of Trayvon Martin, an African American man, the public perception/evaluation of African American English Vernacular (AAVE) in the United States has resurfaced as a key issue within sociolinguistics. For example, Rickford and King (2016: 949) argue that it was AAVE that was ‘on trial’ in this case, and that linguists must assume some responsibility for ‘dispelling fictions and prejudices against vernacular speech.’ In this paper, I am also interested in the social evaluation of AAVE in a U.S. courtroom; however, I suggest that a focus on ‘language and linguistics’ may not go far enough in investigations of linguistic differentiation and social hierarchies.

This paper considers intertextual practices in an American rape trial, Maouloud Baby v. the State of Maryland, a trial in which both the accused and the complainant were African American. While there were no overt references to race at any point in the trial, the prosecuting lawyer spent a considerable amount of the cross-examination of the accused engaged in an intertextual exercise—he quoted extensively from a written transcript of the accused’s police interrogation, quoting and animating the accused’s utterances from the interrogation, many of which contained linguistic features of AAVE. Indeed, my analysis demonstrates that a significant part of the prosecutor’s efforts to undermine the credibility of the accused involved the lawyer drawing attention to, and discursively foregrounding, the accused’s use of AAVE. However, the complainant in this case was also a speaker of AAVE (and used many of the same features as the accused), raising the question of how her use of AAVE may have been insulated from the discriminatory discursive work of the prosecuting lawyer. In resolving this puzzle, I draw on work by Agha (2005) and Rosa and Flores (2017) on enregisterment and, specifically, raciolinguistic enregisterment—work that reverses the more standard way of understanding the relationship between linguistic varieties and social categories. That is, rather than viewing racialized varieties as stable, empirically-observable objects that ‘emanate’ from racialized subjects, Rosa and Flores maintain that, in understanding the negative evaluation of a racialized linguistic variety such as AAVE, it is more productive to focus on the ideological work that ‘listening subjects’ (Inoue 2006) do in linking particular linguistic forms to particular social types or ‘figures of personhood’ (Agha 2005: 39).

Within a rape trial, then, where cultural ideologies of masculine and feminine sexualities are highly salient, I argue that the figure of personhood mobilized by the prosecutor’s foregrounding of AAVE was a deeply-rooted racist version of African-American masculinity as hypersexual and physically violent. Collins (2005) has argued that, in spite of the heterogeneity of black masculinities in the United States, it is this figure of an African American man that is viewed as ‘authentically’ black and, as such, constitutes an important mechanism by which anti-black racism is perpetuated and justified. There are good reasons that a prosecuting lawyer would want to strategically recruit this kind of figure in this setting, given how prejudicial such a characterization would be to a man accused of rape. Moreover, the gendered nature of these meanings indexed by AAVE, at least in this context, meant that the complainant, who also had features of AAVE in her speech, would be protected from the discriminatory discursive work of the prosecuting lawyer.

In sum, this paper demonstrates the limitations of focusing exclusively on linguistic forms in understanding the stigmatization of racialized varieties; as Zavala says, it is a mistake to assume that ‘the listening subject can perceive objective linguistic forms isolated from ideological frames’ (Zavala 2018: 378). Rather, under an enregisterment account, social meanings (e.g., racist meanings) are expressed through figures of personhood that become emblematic of linguistic varieties. In the trial analyzed in this paper, I am suggesting that the linguistic features of AAVE, which were put ‘on display’ by the prosecuting lawyer, indexed a figure of personhood at the intersection of race and gender—the hypersexual, violent black man—which would only amplify the culpability of an accused in a rape trial.

Susan Ehrlich Biography

Susan Ehrlich is Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University, Toronto, Canada. She has written extensively on language, sexual violence and the law and is currently working on a project that investigates intertextual practices in the legal system, demonstrating how such an investigation can shed light on broader patterns of social inequalities. Recent books include The Handbook of Language, Gender and Sexuality (co-edited with Miriam Meyerhoff and Janet Holmes) and Discursive Constructions of Consent in the Legal Process (co-edited with Diana Eades and Janet Ainsworth).