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Study suggests court reporters tend to fail in translating ‘Black English’


At the end of 2017, federal and state prisons in the U.S. held about 475,900 inmates who were Black and 436,500 who were White, according to a survey by Pew Research. Meanwhile, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP reports that African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites. Statistics such as these bring into sharp focus the importance of a new study that finds that court reporters, whose transcriptions constitute official court records, fall significantly below their required levels of accuracy when recording speakers of African American English, claims Cosmos

The study, published in the journal Language, and titled “Testifying While Black: An Experimental Study of Court Reporter Accuracy in Transcription of African American English,” found that the court reporters tested were only able to transcribe 82.9 percent of words accurately when asked to record everyday sentences in African American English, although they are required to be certified at 95 percent accuracy.

The U.S. criminal justice system rests on the idea that every criminal defendant has the right to a speedy and fair trial – guaranteed under the sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution – note the study’s authors, Taylor Jones from the University of Pennsylvania. The report states every trial must be recorded by a highly trained court reporter so that a verbatim official record will be available. “But what happens when the verbatim official record is not so verbatim?” the author asks.  “What happens to the right to a fair trial when the words of the defendant, or the witnesses, are misunderstood and inaccurately inscribed in the official court record?”

Jones and co-author Jessica Kalbfeld from New York University give some examples of African American English in a separate blog, also titled “Testifying while Black.” These include the deletion of conjugated is/are, as in “he workin’”, ’ for “he is working; negative inversion (for instance, don’t nobody never say nothing to them, “nobody ever says anything to them”); deletion of the possessive ‘s’, as in his baby mama for “his baby’s mama;” first-person use of niga, where the word does not denote another person, but rather indicates the speaker, as in “a niga hungry” “I am hungry;” and the modal term “tryna,” used to indicate intent or futurity, as in “when you tryna go?,” for “when do you intend to go?”