The Rickford plenary address

Tomorrow at Stanford, John Rickford is doing a dry run for his plenary address at the NWAV (New Ways of Analyzing Variation) conference later this month:

Class and Race in the Analysis of Language Variation and the Struggle for Social Justice: Sankofa
John R. Rickford, Stanford University
Abstract for NWAV-47 plenary, NYU, 10/20/18

A bit of background:

John’s NWAV abstract, showing him as a major scholar of language, race, and society and also as admirably engaged in both advocating for and aiding communities of color:

Sankofa (<Twi san ‘return,’ ko ‘go,’ fa ‘fetch’) literally means “Go back and get it,” or figuratively, “Look back to go forward.” It is useful at this point in the study of socolinguistic variation to recall two aspects of our early history that are worth re-emphasizing: the relevance of social class and race, and the importance of social application. For instance, three of the most influential community studies of the 1960’s — Labov et al (1968) in Harlem, and Shuy, Wolfram and Riley (1967) and Wolfram (1969) in Detroit — focused on class, race and language and were funded by the US Office of Education with the goal of improving the teaching of inner-city students.

To help us go forward, in this talk I will look back at 50+ years of research to address our theoretical understandings of the roles of race and class in sociolinguistic variation, and our applied efforts to curtail the discrimination and injustice experienced by African American and other vernacular speakers in schools, police interactions and the courts.

On the theoretical/analytical side, social class/socioeconomic status was at the heart of the genesis of quantitative sociolinguistics in the 1960s, but it has been pursued with less frequency and conviction since then. However, class does remain very relevant to sociolinguistic variation, and recent models of social class variation in sociology offer new strategies for analyzing it in language variation.  How class and race shape sociolinguistic variation as they do needs further theorizing and explanation, I think, as is the question of why race often trumps class as the basis of socio-political action and speech alignment in the US.

On the applied/activist side, we have only recently begun to document the extent to which speakers of African American Vernacular English [AAVE] are discriminated against in US courtrooms because of jurors’ unfamiliarity with and prejudice against their dialect. Rickford and King (2016) argue, for instance, that the vital courtroom testimony of Rachel Jeantel in the 2013 Florida trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin was neither understood nor believed, partly because it was delivered in AAVE. (Jeantel will read two of her poems before my talk.) Jones et al (2018) provide compelling experimental evidence that US court reporters simply do not understand AAVE speakers well enough. Other cases from the US, UK and Caribbean suggest that this is part of a more general problem, exacerbated when the speaker is poor or a person of color. And Voigt et al (2016) demonstrate that race is the salient basis of the relative respect shown (through language) to motorists stopped by Oakland police officers, regardless of officer ethnicity. Finally, re-segregation is increasing in the US since court-ordered efforts against it have been relaxed, with dire consequences for literacy education, job prospects, and unjust incarceration among Black and Brown vernacular speakers. There are encouraging examples of relatively new initiatives making a positive difference (e.g. Harambee youth employment accelerator in S. Africa, The Brotherhood Sister Sol in NYC). How sociolinguists can contribute to these initiatives and innovate new ones of our own is worth considering. We owe it to the communities that have fueled the development of our subfield.


Jones, Taylor, Jessica Kalbfeld, Ryan Hancock, and Robin Clark. 2018. Testifying while Black: An experimental study of court reporter accuracy in transcription of African American English. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania. Presented at the January meeting of the Linguistics Society of New York. Under review.

Labov, William, Paul Cohen, Clarence Robins and John Lewis. 1968. A Study of the Non-Standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City. Final Report, Cooperative Research Project No. 3288, US Office of Education.

Rickford, John R., and Sharese King. 2016. Language and linguistics on trial: Hearing Rachel Jeantel (and other vernacular speakers) in the courtroom and beyond. Language 92.4:948-88.

Shuy, Roger, Walter A. Wolfram, and William K. Riley. 1967. Linguistic Correlates of Social Stratification in Detroit Speech. Final Report, Cooperative Research Project No. 6-1347, United States Office of Education.

Voight, Rob, Nicholas P. Camp, Vinodkumar Prabhakaran, William L. Hamilton, Rebecca C. Hetey, Camilla M. Griffiths, David Jurgens, Dan Jurafsky and Jennifer Eberhardt. (June) 2017. Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS]

Wolfram, Walter A. 1969. A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

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