Stenographers in Pennsylvania are tasked with transcribing everything that happens in court. However, these same people may have a problem understanding a big part of society: African Americans who speak Black English. As a result, stenographers can make mistakes when trying to paraphrase what they heard being said, which can lead to unintended consequences. In one study, when a group of stenographers had to decipher Black English, they misinterpreted two out of every five sentences and were able to paraphrase only a third of what they heard.
Despite what some people say, Black English is a legitimate alternative dialect that has grown in parallel with standard English. This dialect has its own grammatical rules and its own nuances: For instance, when someone uses the word “be” in a sentence such as “She be there on Sunday,” what they are saying is that she goes there every Sunday like clockwork.
Stenographers who haven’t grown up being immersed in this different dialect may find it difficult to interpret, which is why several agencies have asked for Black English translators. For modern stenographers to understand what is being said, they would have to learn about 25 unique grammatical traits that apply to Black English all over America while still accounting for local differences.
This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed as African Americans are over-represented in American prisons, and in order to truly achieve “equality under the law,” courts must strive to understand everyone who walks through its doors. Anyone who feels that they were treated unfairly as a result of being misunderstood might benefit from reaching out to an experienced lawyer, who may find a way to set things straight.