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Court stenographers often misunderstand Black English (theatlantic.com)
32 points by myinnerbanjo 45 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

>“Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog?” Warren Demesme asked the police when accused of sexual assault in 2017. The statements one makes to law enforcement after requesting a lawyer are inadmissible—but Demesme’s rights were ignored because, it was argued, he’d requested a “lawyer dog,” not an actual attorney.

No one _actually_ thinks that was a misunderstanding, right?

No, it's wildly misleading:

>And the basis for this comes from the second interview, where I believe the defendant ambiguously referenced a lawyer— prefacing that statement with “if y’all, this is how I feel, if y’all think I did it, I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog cause this is not what’s up.” As this Court has written, “[i]f a suspect makes a reference to an attorney that is ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable police officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking his right to counsel, the cessation of questioning is not required.” State v. Payne, 2001- 3196, p. 10 (La. 12/4/02), 833 So.2d 927, 935 (citations omitted and emphasis in original); see also Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 462, 114 S.Ct. 2350, 2357, 129 L.Ed.2d 362 (1994) (agreeing with the lower courts’ conclusion that the statement “[m]aybe I should talk to a lawyer” is not an unambiguous request for a lawyer). In my view, the defendant’s ambiguous and equivocal reference to a “lawyer dog” does not constitute an invocation of counsel that warrants termination of the interview and does not violate Edwards v. Arizona,


It's pretty obvious that the judge does not think that there are lawyer dogs and that the word "dog" in that sentence has no bearing on the judges opinion.

I was ready to agree with you, but the fact that opinion quotes "lawyer dog" makes me question what the judge actually thinks (or is claiming to think). Clearly it should be "lawyer, dog," instead of "lawyer dog". The judge does seem to be quoting the transcript, however, which leads us to the point of the article.

I don't know why you're questioning anything. The judge gave his reasoning. He said:

>defendant ambiguously referenced a lawyer— prefacing that statement...

It's crystal clear that he is referring to this portion of the defendants statement:

>if y’all, this is how I feel, if y’all think I did it

I'm a little bit stunned that people actually think this is how the legal system works. You think that a prosecutor would seriously argue that a defendant didn't request a lawyer because they added "dog" to the end of that request? Or that a judge would take that argument seriously?

I'd like to believe that, and I think I still do, but it just seems odd the way the judge phrases his opinion. I agree that the defendant's wording is ambiguous, but that last sentence gets me:

> In my view, the defendant’s ambiguous and equivocal reference to a “lawyer dog” does not constitute...

Maybe it's just in jest or intended to be a (racially-coded?) slight at the defendant. It doesn't change the overall argument, but it stands out to me. Why wouldn't you just say "lawyer" there, probably without the quotes?

Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I would like to imagine legal opinions are written carefully. Hopefully I'm missing something.

'In my view, the defendant’s ambiguous and equivocal reference to a “lawyer dog” does not constitute an invocation of counsel that warrants termination of the interview and does not violate'

Stunned or not, it seems pretty clear the judge is referring specifically to the phrase "lawyer dog" in the summary of their judgement. I don't see how 'reference to a "lawyer dog"' could be interpreted any other way...

In this case ambiguous or equivocal means:

>ambiguous or equivocal in that a reasonable police officer in light of the circumstances would have understood only that the suspect might be invoking his right to counsel

So the judge isn't saying that he is confused and thinks the statement is ambiguous because he doesn't know what a lawyer dog is. He's saying it's ambiguous because the statement didn't clearly request a lawyer, canine or otherwise.

This isn't anything confusing to a lawyer or someone familiar with the law. It's a well known legal standard. What the article claims is equivalent to saying that Java takes a lot of memory because the code is so verbose. It's just so obviously wrong to anyone with legal knowledge.

That's all well and good, but the judge is quite clear that it is 'the defendant’s ... reference to a “lawyer dog”' that is 'ambiguous and equivocal'.

I'd be curious about your views on why the judge chose to include that sentence if the 'reference to a “lawyer dog”'' wasn't relevant to his decision?

>That's all well and good, but the judge is quite clear that it is 'the defendant’s ... reference to a “lawyer dog”' that is 'ambiguous and equivocal'.

In that it was not a clear and unambiguous invocation of the right to counsel.

>I'd be curious about your views on why the judge chose to include that sentence if the 'reference to a “lawyer dog”'' wasn't relevant to his decision?

I don't know why he chose to quote "lawyer dog" and not more or less of the defendant's quote. I'm not a mind reader. But when he writes:

>I believe the defendant ambiguously referenced a lawyer

It's clear that the ambiguity he is arguing does not derive from his lack of knowledge of what a lawyer dog is.


A white suspect who said the same thing would probably have gotten a lawyer. The idiom "dog" is widely understood and used outside the black community, like "bro," "dude", "man", and there is no possible way “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog?” was honestly interpreted as a request for a canid that passed the bar exam.

I certainly wouldn't understand it. I have my doubts that it is even universally understood inside the black community.

The most reasonable interpretation is that it is an insult, along the lines of "Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, asshole?" (or motherfucker, or asswipe, or shithead...)

Note that it happens to be a question. That isn't really the proper way to ask for something. The answer to the question may well be "Because you haven't demanded one yet, parakeet".

> I certainly wouldn't understand it. I have my doubts that it is even universally understood inside the black community. The most reasonable interpretation is that it is an insult

I'm a 40-year-old out-of-touch white dude and I know exactly what "dog" means in this context. So do my 65-year-old parents.

Maybe your life has been so far removed from mainstream American culture that you haven't heard basic slang for the last quarter-century at least. That doesn't mean it's reasonable or excusable for a working cop.

What makes insult the "most reasonable interpretation?" Couldn't this be explained as the suspect was in fact showing respect to the officer? As counterposed with: "Why don't you just give me a lawyer, bitch?"

Since "dog" is the male version of "bitch", it could be effectively the same insult.

The best assumption for a random mysterious word is an insult, especially when used as name for you. If you don't know what "kike" or "tard" means and you assume it is an insult, you wouldn't be wrong.

It's still comprehensible. You understand it to be a request for a lawyer. You may find it insulting, or grammatically incorrect, but you're obviously aware that a lawyer, and not a "lawyer dog" is being asked for.

> In 2007, a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dissent claimed that when a black woman said, in terror, “He finna shoot me,” she may have been referring to something in the past, when in fact “finna” refers to the immediate future.

This one is ridiculous as well.

Here's the quote:

>“I need police. . . . Me and my mama’s boyfriend got into it, he went in the house and got a pistol, and pulled it out on me. I guess he’s fixing to shoot me, so I got in my car and [inaudible] left. I’m right around the corner from the house.”

Here's the judge's argument:

> I hear the words: “I guess he finna shoot me.”

>the statement contains no auxiliary verb (e.g., “is” or “was”) connected to “finna,” which I understand to be a slang contraction for “fixing to,” much as “gonna” serves as a contraction for “going to.” See, e.g., http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=finna (last visited Apr. 19, 2007) (defining “finna” as, “Abbreviation of ‘fixing to.’ Normally means ‘going to.’”).8 The lack of an auxiliary verb renders determination of whether Gordon intended to imply the past or present tense an exercise in sheer guesswork.


The majority said that "he's fixing to shoot me"/"he finna shoot me" means that there is an ongoing attempt by the defendant. The dissenting judge said that's not something you can definitively conclude absent an "is" or "was" given that the rest of the statement was in past tense. So when the author of the article writes:

>when in fact “finna” refers to the immediate future

It's obvious he hasn't actually bothered to go and read the opinion. Or I suppose it's possible that a professional writer doesn't understand that you can use future tense when recounting stories in the past.


It's an article about a systemic bias. I think a lot of tech people are interested in this sort of thing, because so much of tech involves interpreting one thing and moving it to another. Take images and making descriptions; taking text and making decisions; speech to text; translation; medical charting; anything where you have messy data and need to get it down in some sort of canonical format.

That's what court stenographers do, and it turns out they have a systemic bias. It's only "politics" when that systemic bias is racial- what if they were biased about computer technicalities, and wrote down the wrong things about, I don't know, IP addresses or computer forensics and that ended up screwing over people at trial. That would be a similar sort of systemic bias and nobody would be calling it "politics".

How many times have you accidentally used technical terms and jargon and been misunderstood? Now imagine it's in a court case and there's someone in the corner taking notes and they miswrite something crucial and you only learn about it much later when it's too late and part of the official record. Now imagine this is pervasive and means that accused "hackers" are being convicted based on shoddy court records.

It’s up to opinion whether discussion of racial issues is political, but if I want to read about racial issues, Hacker News is not the top of my list.

I suppose you also hate this article that's been posted here all the time, because it mentions that people with different ethnicities have different naming traditions?


You can't escape this stuff and, I submit, you shouldn't want to. Even in tech. Heck, especially in tech.

I just had a read, and found it to be informative. The article does not mention race or ethnicity and covers something useful which pertains to tech.

I absolutely do want to escape the politics, as I find the discussions only lead to anxiety and polarisation.

And yet, here you are.

Flag it if you hate it, and move on!

Flagging it would be inappropriate, it doesn't violate the guidelines.

The appropriate response to a story you don't want to participate in is not to participate in it. Stories can also be hidden.

For the most part, snacking on fun size computer related infotainment factoids has been plumbed to a depth beyond originally predicted limits, and we've already cycled past buffer overflow multiple times, which is why the cloud has virtualized nearly all abstractions away, to the point that we print cryptography and call it money.

The fabric of society is now this nearly archeological, tattered, stained, badly degraded gauze pad hearkening to antiquity, left over from battlefield effort to stanch some sucking chest wound that obliterated familial and tribal structures during the nineteenth century, amid industrialization.

We talk about politics now, because interloping, invasive, psychologically scrutinizing, behavioral skinner box cloud services and glass slabs of pixel art controlled by theremin UI gestures (we call them "smart phones" even though they aren't really phones anymore) have pretty much ruined what we once called general purpose computing.

Even gaming has been converted to social media by webcamming yourself as you play skit-like bursts of miniature first person shooters in multiplayer arenas, and think of little else but whether people are entertained by your quips and banter.

Soon we'll be filling our bathtubs with nutritious oxygenated slurry, and donning waterproof VR SCUBA gear, in order to literally immerse ourselves into virtualized audience participation platforms, that guide our happy thoughts, as we modulate our brainwaves, in order to earn credits that satisfy the balance of our slurry bill, electric bill and rent, so that we never have to leave the house, not even to ride in self driving cars.

On the bright side, that will very likely bring an end to politics as we know it, since no one will need to leave their bath tubs, as this new model of civilization progresses.

This is a technical article, as far as The Atlantic goes, and its focus is not political. It's an interesting introduction to black vernacular English for the uninitiated.




From Wikipedia:

Politics (from Greek: πολιτικά, translit. Politiká, meaning "affairs of the cities") is the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group.[1]

The article discusses a dialect of English and how its speakers can be disadvantaged in certain situations. It’s an article bringing awareness of a situation. It’s not political. Being exposed to facts is not political.

That's interesting, because your comment history suggest you are happy to comment on certain types of political articles.

“Black people, including kids, use Black English alongside standard English rather than exclusively.”

Okay, so it’s solved. Since according to the author all black people can communicate in the standard English dialect, I would suggest to use that when speaking with court employees. This is what I do. I do not address police officers as “dog”, for example, and expect 100% positive results. I would say “sir”, which is also in contrast to how I speak to my peers in daily life, despite the fact that I am white.

I think it’s clear from the article that the author is does not intend to mean that everyone who speaks Black English also has a command of standard English. It seems to me he was saying that standard English should be taught in schools despite Black English being prominent in some districts.

It’s widely recognized that people sometimes prefer to speak in their native tongue for purposes of being accurate. Hence sometimes bilingual Spanish speakers will testify in Spanish despite knowing English. The overarching point of the article is that a person’s native tongue ought not influence whether or not they are deemed guilty. Do you disagree with this point?

That might be the point of the article, but that wasn’t the point that I was discussing. Perhaps you missed my point. I don’t communicate with the legal system using the same language used to communicate with my peers. Why should anyone else expect to?

I think it is you who has missed the point. I deal with the legal system in my native language. It happenes to be standard English but I’m not so ethnocentric in my thinking to believe that non native speakers of standard English should be not able to interact with the legal system in their native language.

> “Why don’t you just give me a lawyer, dog?”

That this was not interpreted as a request for a lawyer and (worse) that that interpretation was upheld on appeal is a grave miscarriage of justice, IMO.

Sure, it’s a clear intentional misinterpretation. Probably not the worst miscarriage of justice that occurred in that person’s case. Probably they were arrested for something that shouldn’t have even been a crime in the first place. But the person who said it is also an idiot.

> Probably they were arrested for something that shouldn’t have even been a crime in the first place.

I wouldn't say that.

> [T]wo juvenile victims told investigators that Warren Demesme, 22, sexually assaulted them. Baddoo said one victim reported that Demesme “would portray the rape as a game, and the child articulated the sexual contact caused her pain.”


“Probably” indicates a likelihood, not a statement about one particular instance. You’re discussing one particular instance. Statistically, very many people arrested for things that I do not believe should be a crime, such as marijuana possession, and that is to what I am referring.

Your prior sentence literally ended in "in that person's case". IMO, it takes a significantly tortured reading of your words to interpret them as you suggest above.

I said “probably” because I didn’t know anything about it. You’re making a bizarre and pointless assertion and I’m not going to try to bother figuring out what you’re talking about. You seem to think we have them serve philosophical differences or opposing facts, but in reality, you do seem to have had a hard time understanding the phrasing of what I wrote. Sorry.

I said “probably… In that person’s case”. That means, if you randomly select one case, according to me, the likelihood is that some more serious bullshit occurred during the supposed application of justice. I said this in the absence of knowledge about the specifics of this case, and in fact, since I’m speaking in generalities, the specifics of this case don’t matter, at all.

If the legal system was to analyze the situation that you said was such a great miscarriage of justice, they would not be concerned about the underlying crime. They would be concerned about the legal principle of whether it was legal to interpret someone’s words in that way. I think we both agree it was unfair. What was your point again?

If you are ever in a court that is being conducted in a language which is not your native language, request a translator, regardless of how well you think you know the language. There is simply too much risk of mis-communication. The problem that speakers of Black English (or any other non-standard dialect) is that they can't just get a translator because their native language is "English".

As an aside, the fact that AAVE and "standard" English are considered the same language is a political decision, not a linguistic one.

I’m discussing how the author of the article said that every black person who speaks another dialect can also speak standard English. This has been my experience. I don’t speak to court personnel using the same language that I used to speak to people on the street. I speak clearly and precisely because I am aware of the consequences of being misinterpreted.


Without assigning labels, what about their advice falls short in your opinion?

The article uses the term “black English” (I might otherwise use the term “slang”) and I think the advice “don’t speak slang to people who, so that you might more likely achieve your own objectives, you ought to be showing utmost respect” is pretty solid.

The article delineates the difference between this dialect and slang. That’s kind of a key point.

Really, it acts as if people are speaking completely separate languages. So, imagine if I was arrested in Mexico and I could speak English and Spanish, but insisted on speaking English and then complained that the court personnel misunderstood me.

Yes. You should absolutely insist on speaking English in that circumstance. Get or let the Mexican court furnish a translator for you.

Why would that be? I didn’t specify any difference in my skills at speaking English or Spanish. Are you saying there’s an advantage in addressing the court in a foreign language?

The article very specifically addresses the distinction between Black English and "slang".

I also strongly disagree with the notion that someone's _rights_ should be tied to whether or not a cop feels they were sufficiently respectful.

The reality is that as a white person, if I am sufficiently disrespectful to a police officer, I am liable to get beat severely or arrested. In a confrontation with the police, there is a chance that I might be unfairly killed. The issue with the race is that this happens at twice the rate to black people. The issue is NOT that it never happens to white people – is that the rate is disproportionate. My opinion is that police should never kill citizens by choice, and that the issue is really more of a citizen power versus police than white versus black.

The article mentions that what it calls "Black English" has been compared humorously to slang. I believe there is a lot of room for debate and discussion between mocking a way of speaking on the one hand and designating it a separate language on the other.

As for respect. Respect matters because laws are enforced by people. When you're in an exchange with a cop or a judge how things go for you are tied to both the letter of the law _and_ the laws of human nature. We live in meatspace.

So it's okay to take away people's rights because they talk funny?

Maybe you could sketch out how you drew that conclusion from what I said?

I assume we can agree that, based on the article, a person was mistreated because they spoke in slang. In your comment, you put the blame for that entirely on the speaker. I don't think it's a stretch, therefore, to assume that the police officer is 100% blameless in your mind, and it was okay for them to treat the defendant as they did.

If you meant to communicate something else, you didn't do it very clearly.

Actually, the article delineates the difference between slang and what they (linguists) consider a separate dialect or language related to English.

You are maligning the speakers by saying that they “talk funny” or by summing up what I have said as “they talk funny”. According to the article, they speak 2 separate languages. I would suggest addressing police and the courts in the court’s native language. According to the article, again, this is possible for all black people.

I feel fairly neutral about police in general. Are they blameless? I really doubt it. Do I know anything else about this case, or does it really matter? No. Not at all.

One of the biggest ways to lift marginalized groups out of poverty would be to provide speech therapy. This needs to be as universal as teaching history, math, and science. We're choosing to leave people with a huge disadvantage when we pretend that dialects aren't a problem that can and should be fixed.

I think the author of this article says it well...

"In fact, Black English is not deficient but alternate. There is no scientific basis for judging Black English grammatical structures as faulty or unclear"

While I wouldn't use the phrase "speech therapy" in this context , I think there is a more charitable interpenetration of burfog's comment.

We have no problem teaching Spanish speaking students English, or even constructing entire curriculum around the idea that they are still learning English while being taught. No one involved in that is under the impression that Spanish is inferior, but they recognize that, for people living in this region of the world, English is an important language to know.

We have decided that AAVE and "standard" English are the same language, but that is very much a political decision (and far from the most absurd example of different dialects being the same language). However, weather we want to call it a foreign language or not, it is still not the same language that native speakers of standard English speak. Any any speaker of English who plans on interacting significantly with speakers of another dialect will be well served to treat the other dialect as a foreign language and study it appropriately.


You could say that of French too. The trouble is, French is very deficient when judged as English. French grammatical structures are faulty and unclear in an English-speaking environment.

Likewise for Japanese being judged as Korean. It is deficient, faulty, and unclear. The fact that it is an alternate is unimportant. Japanese is very bad Korean.

The point of a language is to communicate. If you can't communicate, you need to fix that.

The problem (IMO) isn't your suggestion that marginalized people be taught to use and understand General American, it's that you characterize speaking Black English as a pathology.

It can be important to speak the prestige language if one wants to advance in society, but it's not a medical problem to speak a local dialect. Would you advise an aspiring London barrister from Yorkshire to see a therapist or watch some YouTube videos on RP?

It is odd that English is accepted as having many local dialects... except among black people, who are just too ignorant to speak it properly.

As a white man with a strong Southern accent - when I don't suppress it, which I do in professional settings - I assure you that looking down on someone because of their dialect is not solely determined by skin color :)

Fair enough, but skin color is definitely a factor, particularly where law enforcement is concerned.

That would suggest it's a feature, not a bug. I remain unconvinced.

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