American Studies | Branford College

Charlotte Van Voorhis
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Senior Essay Title: "What Two Canonical Novels Can Tell Us About Linguistic Prejudice and Race in United States Courts"

Advisers: James Berger and Raffaella Zanuttini

Abstract: In this senior essay, I focus on how African American English (AAE) is represented and perceived in our society. I establish that it is a regular and systematic variety of English and debunk claims that it is only a collection of mistakes. I investigate the text of two novels, To Kill A Mockingbird
and Their Eyes Were Watching God and look at whether the dialogues in AAE accurately reflect the regularity and systematicity of this linguistic variety and therefore how this dialect, and its speakers, are treated in the court scenes. I compare the treatment of AAE in the novels’ trials to its treatment in State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman (2013), in which Rachel Jeantel’s testimony was severely criticized and unfairly dismissed. I show that AAE is viewed by some as lacking and, even worse, is associated with negative connotations for its speakers, with extremely damaging consequences. Not only are AAE speakers seen as less reliable, but they also require some sort of standardized translation in order to fully enter and gain respect in the courtroom. By exploring this thematic link between canonical American fiction and contemporary events, the wounds caused by linguistic prejudice can begin to heal.