In your own words: Investigating voice, intertextuality, and credibility of Rachel Jeantel in the George Zimmerman trial

Grace Catherine Sullivan


In February 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, who, after a month of highly-publicized trial, was acquitted of second-degree murder. In this paper, I examine the testimony of Martin’s childhood friend and witness for the prosecution, Rachel Jeantel. I investigate the ways in which the intertextual strategy of voicing another, that is the representation of not only their words, but also the characteristics of their language variety, may effectively eliminate the witness’s credibility. This work is motivated by the literature on the interaction between intertextual strategies (Bakhtin 1981, Becker 1994, Tannen 2007[1989]) and language ideologies (Matoesian 1999, Tannen 2010), especially as they relate to institutional discourse of courtroom interactions (Conley and O’Barr 1990, Conley et al. 1978, Magenau 2003, Cotterill 2003). My analysis shows that the prosecuting attorney standardizes Jeantel’s African American English (AAE) and excuses the supposed lack of clarity of her testimony as due to her upbringing in a non-native English-speaking household. The defense attorney voices Jeantel in a much more adversarial manner and reflects her AAE as itself evidence for her testimony to be considered non-credible. And finally, the ways in which the court reporter, the “neutral” language authority of the court, requests clarification of Jeantel’s testimony may actually be effectively discrediting the witness as it further highlights Jeantel’s variety as non-standard and marked for the courtroom.


intertextuality; voice; language ideologies; African American English; Rachel Jeantel; Trayvon Martin

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Copyright (c) 2016 Grace Catherine Sullivan

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