Berkeley Voices: A language divided

man showing woman a document in court
April 5, 2024


There are countless English varieties in the U.S. There's Boston English and California English and Texas English. There's Black English and Chicano English. There's standard academic, or white, English. They're all the same language, but linguistically, they're different.

"Standard academic English is most represented by affluent white males from the Midwest, specifically Ohio in the mid-20th century," says UC Berkeley sociolinguist Justin Davidson. "If you grow up in this country and your English is further away from that variety, then you may encounter instances where the way you speak is judged as less OK, less intelligent, less academically sound."

And this language bias and divide can have devastating consequences, as it did in the trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. 

This is the second episode of a three-part series with Davidson about language in the U.S. Listen to the first and third episode: "A linguist's quest to legitimize U.S. Spanish" and "One brain, two languages."

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