The Atlantic

Could Black English Mean a Prison Sentence?

Court stenographers often misunderstand Black English, and their mistakes could affect people’s lives at crucial junctures.
Source: 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 found that 27 Philadelphia stenographers, presented with recordings of Black English grammatical patterns, made transcription errors on average in two out of every

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic6 min readWellness
Measles Can Be Contained. Anti-Semitism Cannot.
Just as the anti-vaccination movement feeds off a handful of fringe outsiders, long-standing stereotypes about Jews have found a new vector in the latest outbreak of the disease.
The Atlantic6 min read
How Game of Thrones Lost Its Way as a Political Drama
In its later seasons, the show started relying on heavy-handed historical references to do the difficult work of character-building.
The Atlantic7 min readPolitics
The Day the National Guard Raided a Dorm in North Carolina
Violence in the spring of 1969 marred the commencement festivities for that year’s North Carolina A&T graduates. This year, they finally got to celebrate.