The Rickford Files transcript

Carrie Gillon: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.

Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa,

Carrie Gillon: and I’m Carrie Gillon

Megan Figueroa: a happy fifth anniversary to you and us and me.

Carrie Gillon: Oh, I know it’s like, almost exactly to the day

Megan Figueroa: well, actually, when this comes out tomorrow, which is my birthday too, it will be when we tried to release the first time, like we released it out into the world, but the word asshole got us in trouble, right?

Carrie Gillon: Right. And yeah, in the description. Yep. So that’s true.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Okay. So we’re one day off of recording.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: And exactly on,

Megan Figueroa: yeah. Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: So yeah. Yeah. Happy fifth!

Megan Figueroa: Five is a big deal. What is the fifth anniversary? Is it like, it’s not, is it metal of some sort?

Carrie Gillon: I know like the first one is paper?

Megan Figueroa: Paper, right. So wood is the five-year anniversary gift.

Carrie Gillon: I’m not touching that one.

Megan Figueroa: I know.

Carrie Gillon: So yeah, in honor of our five-year anniversary, what’s happening?

Megan Figueroa: Oh my God. We have a live event and we have a very special guest.

Carrie Gillon: Yes. Kory Stamper.

Megan Figueroa: The lexicographer

Carrie Gillon: extraordinaire.

Megan Figueroa: Yes. The History of Swear Words. Cool person.

Carrie Gillon: Very cool person. Taught us about hard pants and soft pants.

Megan Figueroa: Yes. And Moist Towelette of Podcasts. I’ll never forget that title. Sometimes I forget our titles, but not that one.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, cuz it’s so kind of gross actually. I mean, “moist” doesn’t bother me, like it bothers other people, but when you put it together like that, it’s like, kinda gross, but I like it anyways.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And we gonna be talking with her about the word “bullshit”. I feel like I’ve been seeing the word “bullshit” more since we’ve thought of talking about it, but that’s probably not true. Or maybe it is. I-

Carrie Gillon: Probably, probably not. You’re probably just noticing it more.

Megan Figueroa: Because of whatever, whatever,

Carrie Gillon: you’re primed to

Megan Figueroa: yes.

Carrie Gillon: Cause I haven’t noticed any uptick at all.

Megan Figueroa: Okay. okay.

Carrie Gillon: So probably.

Megan Figueroa: I guess saying episode will be not safe for work because we’ll be saying “bullshit” a lot.

Carrie Gillon: I mean, or our, our episodes are never safe for work, so

Megan Figueroa: that’s true. So, yeah, that’s gonna be fun. So we will post in the show notes and on social media, a link to a Google form, where I’ll just ask you to put your name and email address, and then it’ll give you a link to the Zoom for July 16th, Saturday, July 16th at 1:00 PM Pacific time.

Carrie Gillon: Right. Just so that, you know, we we figure you’re probably gonna be safe if you sign up for it.

Megan Figueroa: Exactly.

Carrie Gillon: And if you aren’t safe, we’ll kick you out. It’s fine.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: anyway, you’re gonna teach me something about Alaska that for some reason I have been completely out of the loop on.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah, well, so I’ve been just paying attention to like voting and election stuff. Because

Carrie Gillon: because your country is about to become not a democracy, if you-

Megan Figueroa: exactly. Yeah. I guess, you know, like maybe I should just like keep an eye on it.

So last month Alaska had the special primary. So this is just like remarkably bad about one in eight rural Alaska ballots have been rejected in the special primary.

Carrie Gillon: Holy. That’s a really high percentage.

Megan Figueroa: Is really high. This is really bad. So I clicked it cuz I saw that that’s all. So the headline was just that saying that and I was like, okay, it’s rural Alaska. Is this gonna be an issue with Indigenous, the Alaska Natives,

Carrie Gillon: the Native Alaskans?

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And so, I was right. It looks like there’s like a number of reasons: Alaska’s first ever statewide election by mail. Okay. So you have your first ever statewide election by mail and thousands of ballots are being rejected and it happens to be one of eight rural Alaskans’ mail ins being rejected. The Senator Bill Wielechowski is saying that these are occurring predominantly in rural Alaska, huge Native populations and in, and in low income areas of Alaska. So these are just populations that are underserved in lots of ways anyway. And so that’s like not good, but here’s another problem that they brought up is that there is no outreach to Alaska Natives, not in the way that it’s done to other populations. And of course, that’s like a breakdown of democracy. If like there is a population that is not, you know, it’s being ignored, but it’s also an issue of are these ballots readable to people. Are they accessible language wise? Is it easy to understand what to do with the ballot once you have it? And so this is definitely, you know, an issue of, of language. And –

Carrie Gillon: What are the rules in Alaska? Is it just English or do they provide ballots in any other language?

Megan Figueroa: The language assistance people are sent materials in an the Native language, but materials that the person has that needs help with are in English.

Carrie Gillon: It seems like the, the language assistant is gonna help someone at the polls.

Megan Figueroa: Yes.

Carrie Gillon: Not so much with mail in ballots.

Megan Figueroa: Right so, so there’s this lack of this language assistance that can be provided because you’re at home. Again, this is like looking at equal protection under the law and all of these things. You should have equal access to voting, and this is unequal access to voting if you cannot understand the materials. And even if you, you know, it’s like, if you’re bilingual, you may just want that material in, you know, not the language other –

Carrie Gillon: in your more dominant language.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Well okay. So I see for this article from last November, that soon you’ll be able to register to vote in Yupik.

Carrie Gillon: Oh, oh, okay.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. So that’s good. And the other languages-

Carrie Gillon: that’s a step up

Megan Figueroa: -that you’ll be able to vote in to do, I’m sorry to to register vote in will be Navajo and Apache.

Carrie Gillon: Okay

Megan Figueroa: so that’s one step, but again, once you get the materials, how understandable or how comprehensible are they to you? So, yeah, it just brought, brought to mind that there’s definitely not equitable access right now. All these steps in place to disenfranchize voters. It’s not an accident. I’m glad to see these steps though, you know, for Indigenous voters, certainly, for any, any population that has been disenfranchised historically. I hope they figure it out by the I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re gonna be able to figure it out in a couple months.

Carrie Gillon: Well, you heard that in Wisconsin, they got rid of the drop boxes, right? The Supreme Court ruled against drop boxes.

Megan Figueroa: So same day bringing in your ballot.

Carrie Gillon: It’s not the same day. I think it’s early voting, but it’s not mail-in. It’s more more dropping it off. So they-

Megan Figueroa: okay. Yeah, but you get it in the mail and then you drop it off. What the fu-

Carrie Gillon: yeah. Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: that’s ridiculous.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I’m sorry to tell you things are really bad.

Megan Figueroa: oh yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: So many things leave me exasperated and you’re right. It’s really bad here right now. And sometimes I pretend that nothing is happening and

Carrie Gillon: you kind of have to stay sane.

Megan Figueroa: You have to survive. Yeah,

Carrie Gillon: yeah

Megan Figueroa: yeah, no, it’s a survival mechanism at this point.

Carrie Gillon: So anyway,

Megan Figueroa: anyway,

Carrie Gillon: I’m, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that things are not going to continue to disintegrate down there.

Megan Figueroa: Thank you. Thank you.

Carrie Gillon: but I, I have to say that I’m somewhat dubious

Megan Figueroa: yeah, yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Things have just, I mean, the Supreme Court is like, is a nightmare now it’s like a 100% nightmare, so

Megan Figueroa: yeah. Yeah. You’re dubious. I’m dubious. My stress hives are dubious.

Carrie Gillon: Oh, God. Yeah, seriously.

Megan Figueroa: So anyway. but you know what? We have a fucking amazing episode for everyone today.

Carrie Gillon: Oh yeah. Oh my goodness. ohhhhh,

Megan Figueroa: I mean,

Carrie Gillon: he is such a charmer. I’ve met him in real life and he’s, you know, charming in real life. Charming on over Zoom.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Carrie Gillon: Just. Wow and such great stories. Such interesting stories.

Megan Figueroa: I know. We have the John Rickford for y’all today.

Carrie Gillon: the.

We’re very excited to have Dr. John R. Rickford. He received his BA with the highest honors. The linguistics from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1971 and his PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979. He won a Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1984 and a Bing Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching in 1992. And the primary focus of his research and teaching is sociolinguistics, the relation between linguistic variation and change and social structure. He’s especially interested in the relation between language and ethnicity, social class and style, language variation and change, Pidgin and Creole languages, African American Vernacular English, and the applications of linguistics to educational problems.

But the reason that we have him on today is that he’s also the author of Speaking my Soul: Race, Life and Language. So welcome.

John Rickford: Thank you very much.

Megan Figueroa: Yes. Thank you so much for being here. We’re really excited to talk with you.

Carrie Gillon: So the first question I have is why did you wanna write this memoir?

John Rickford: I retired on August 30, 2019. 10 days later, I had a stroke and I came face to face with my mortality. If I, I think if I had not been at, at Stanford, I would probably not have been here. Because my, my father, my, and two of my brothers, two of my three brothers have died of strokes.

Carrie Gillon: Mm

Megan Figueroa: oh, wow.

John Rickford: And I had very excellent doctors who took care of me and I survived, but I spent about a week in, at Stanford Hospital and then it was another week and in the rehab center and I really wanted to write the memoir. I thought I. If I did nothing else, I wanted to leave something for my family and, and, and friends, and maybe even publish it, about some significant, you know, events in my life.

So I actually got the mission to go to a brand new course that was being taught at Stanford evening on writing a memoir by, by, by Rachael Herron. They, they allowed me to go. Although they were very they were tracking me throughout the time. “Are you coming back now? Are you not coming back now?” And that course was wonderful. Taught me a lot and I made some friends, a small group of friends in the course and we continued to meet after the course was finished about, you know, exchanging drafts of memoirs and so on and so forth.

Luckily Routledge said they would publish it. As I like to put it, I, I labored joyfully over the last two years, writing this book and it’s wonderful that they, they allowed me, you know, I have over 70 pictures and illustrations , a very long index, unlike most memoirs.

Carrie Gillon: Yes.

John Rickford: They’re not many in linguistics, you know David Crystal notes, this in his book, Just a Phrase I’m Going Through that they’re very rare in linguistics. I really feel privileged to have one, you know.

Megan Figueroa: Well, well, how different was it to write something like this versus all the academic articles you’ve written?

John Rickford: Yeah. Well, of course, a lot of things in my book, they don’t have anything to do with language per se, you know, I think my second chapter is about a monkey and a rabbit that I had as a, as a, as a child. I don’t know how I, I got them from a neighbor along the street and this monkey, a marmoset monkey and rabbit used to, they always stayed together in the same cage and they used to snuggle up against each other and they used to play together. And so on.

And eventually the monkey was out his stage one day and he got bitten by a dog. I took him to the vet and everything. And he loved the breeze and so on, but he, he died. It was very sad for me, but the rabbit afterwards just refused to eat. And I got the best kind of grass. After three days he just died the really of a, of a broken heart. And it was, that was doubly catastrophic for me.

So I have things like that. I have a chapter on Johnny Agard, who the people in England will know well as a poet, you know, you see the, the Choice Award for Poetry. He and I had a little, let’s call it incident in you, our teenage years. When we were going around by these two Indian girls, girls had been out at a party. We were trying to attract their attention. We were singing little songs and, you know, kinda ridiculous. We had on raincoats. It was not raining. Eventually we decided, you know, we had enough of that, but people, neighbors thought we were, there were thieves we were gonna steal fruit from the, the, the, the, the parents fruit trees. And they called the police, but they also assembled a little group that would try to capture us and beat us up if the police didn’t come in time. I stopped and Johnny Agard didn’t and they pointed a gun and said, “tell your friend to stop or we’ll shoot.” And I yelled at him to stop. Luckily, because he’s a huge poet in England. We went to the police station. We were kept in a holding cell for several hours. And so, and so, so I, I talk about that too. And Agard wrote The Calypso Alphabet about that incident, which I also include. So I have things like that.

I have things about my family, of course, a lot for my family, about my identity. I talk when I came to the United States, I talked about going University of California, Santa Cruz, but then I also have chapters on how I fell in love with linguistics and Black talk. And I have I talk about Dennis Brutus in England, who fought against segregation in sports in South Africa and was shot by the police. And was in the cell next to Nelson Mandela.

And I have a, a chapter on Rachel Jeantel, who was the star witness in the trial of Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon.

It goes all over the place. Some chapters are much more about language than others. But it’s designed to be readable, but you know, linguists think all kinds of things are readable. But you only see the eyes start to glass over, you realize that nobody’s really understanding you.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. So I do, we, we do definitely wanna get to, you know, Rachel Jeantel and all of those first, before we get to that stuff. I do wanna talk a little bit about what it was like growing up in Guyana and also like the transition from there to the United States, what that was like for you.

John Rickford: There are many parts of that. I could answer. I have a picture in this book of my teachers, the staff at my school, it was called Queens College, my high school. And probably the first thing you would notice is of course, except for two Asian teachers, everybody is Black or Indian. So it was very different from the United States. But I think very often colleagues at Stanford, when you think in terms of trying to hire, let’s say an African American person in the department, they think of it as very unusual. You have to take a chance that this person, that’s completely the opposite of what I grew up with. I grew up with people who were brilliant, and they were people of color, because basically everyone was of color. I can go into that more.

I did have one English headmaster when I was there, during the transition from being a colonial entity to independent. The heads of all departments at school used to be British when I was school when Guyana became independent in 1966. So that’s one thing.

Secondly, my chapter on forebearers makes clear, I was regarded in Guyana as a mixed race person. So that later on, not much later I had my DNA tested. My ancestry is probably 13% Indian ancestry, some Amerindian, and then about 48% percent white ancestry, which by the way, is, as I noted is about the same as Henry Lewis Gates, you know, of Finding Your Roots fame. So I would, would be what you would call, at that time, a redman, or red mullato to use a phrase that was used in the 19th century, there was a whole series of these distinctions, Sambo, which was 1/16th white. So that the system fell apart, but the notion remained. So at the time you weren’t really considered Black unless you were decidedly Black, you had 80% or more African ancestry. And Johnny Agard was, was very similar. I think his dad, I never got to meet in person was, was Black and his, his mom was Portuguese.

But when I came to United States, it was a totally different picture. In United States, basically, as they say, they say it’s a one drop principle. But I had much more than one drop. I had at least 34 drops and you know, when I went to Santa Cruz, immediately all the Black students started calling me “brother”: “Hey brother, what you doing?” And and I also had a few incidents where, sometimes with the police sometimes with other people, it was clear that they regarded me as Black and a threat in some way. And so I gravitated to the Black students at, at Santa Cruz. And in fact, I literally became president of the Black Students Association.

So my identity changed from a mixed race, a redman, to a Black person. And I have a whole chapter where I talk about a letter to my dad saying that, you know, “this is my new identity.” and I could tell I voted when I was a sophomore, because it was sophmoric. “I am a member of the human race.” My father was a really big person and he wrote a letter saying, “forgive me. I meant no such harm as you envisage.” It’s a very powerful personal chapter. And by the end of that summer of 1969, he died from a stroke. And I, I remember that when I was leaving Guyana, I shook his hand and he said, “are you too big a man to, to give me a kiss, you know? I mean you’re gonna shake my hand?” Of course, I, I, I gave him a kiss, but I really regretted that because I would never, I never got, I was never able to afford to fly home for the funeral. So that was the last time I actually saw him.

Two things happened. I switched from literature to linguistics. Discovered LIS at Santa Cruz. And I switch my identity. I was gonna the book “Transformed” or something like that. For various reasons, we decided that “Speaking my Soul” was a better title and it, it resonates with another book I’ve written called “Spoken Soul”, which is widely used at universities. And so on.

When I first came, I was totally on the periphery of things with Black things and things in general. And over the years I went much more. Into the center, through Herman Blake, who was a big influencer on me at Santa Cruz and, and still is, I met Huey Newton, you know, co-founded the Black Panther Party. And I learned poems with, with, with Professor Blake. I got to know him a little bit. I met, of course, Rosa Parks. We brought her to Stanford and she came to our home and played with our kids and she gave an awesome speech. I met August Wilson who is a fantastic user of the Black vernacular. You know, his plays are just amazing. They’re all rich in the, in the vernacular. And this is very different from the person he was at the beginning, you know, where he would try to use high flown language, but it didn’t really work. And I met Oprah. I met Dennis, Dennis, Brutus, who was a very important figure in South Africa, in the fight against apartheid.

So in many ways I became more involved with some leading figures in the African American community. And of course I became very involved because a lot of my recordings were of African Americans in the west, like east Palo Alto. Which was across from Stanford and Daufuskie Island in South Carolina, where they speak Gullah and in Philadelphia. So I got know people across the spectrum of the African American experience and became Chair of African American studies. So, you know, I, I, I, I got involved and I feel grounded in a way that at first, I didn’t, I wasn’t at all, you know.

I’m sorry to talk so long, you know?

Carrie Gillon: No, that was fascinating.

John Rickford: Professor know, I can, I can just keep professing.

Megan Figueroa: I wish all professors were as captivating as you are, because that is not usually how I feel about it.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Well, and I guess I honestly, like, I just know so little about Guyana and your transition. Like some of that I could have guessed, but I didn’t know, like the full, like ramifications of everything that would’ve changed for you. So that was really fascinating.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

John Rickford: Huge, huge change. And you looking back now I’m 72, I guess, but you realize. You know, I was 19, 18

Carrie Gillon: yeah,

John Rickford: of course I took extreme steps. You know, I remember leading, leading a march around Solidad Prison and I think about it as a parent. I think I must have been crazy. Because there were the guards sort of that, you know, with the rifles pointed down at us. And there was, you know, as a leading this group of people marching along. And, and so. I wouldn’t do that now.

My son, who’s a, he’s a professor at Cornell, is much more radical and so on. And so I guess he would do that now. You know, I would similarly disapprove, like my parents disapproved.

Carrie Gillon: In your book, but also as you were just talking, now, you talk about how you, you fell in love with linguistics and, and Black talk. So actually the chapter’s called “How I Fell in Love with Linguistics and Black Talk.” So first let’s talk about linguistics. So what do you love about linguistics and why?

John Rickford: First of all, I designed my own major. Luckily Santa Cruz was, was a kinda crazy experimental place. And in fact, they had no grades.

Megan Figueroa: Oh wow.

John Rickford: We got evaluations from professors, which in fact can be worse because instead of a grade, they would have a whole paragraph. So bad. It was terrible.

 So I began university in 1968. So, you know, I was very influence by the, the novelty of the whole thing. In fact, compared with literature, which I loved and still love, you know, I thought of how difficult it must be to write something new about Shakespeare.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah.

John Rickford: You know, we can always find some little something, but, you know. Whereas everything in sociolinguistics was brand new. And I read an article by Bob Le Page, who was the, a linguist at New York University that had to deal with “Problems to be Faced in Use of English as the Medium of Education in Four West Indian Territories,” you can tell that’s an old time title, because nobody has titles that long these days. He said that, you know, students were doing badly in the exams. You know, we sat exams that as a colonial entity that were set in England and created by people in England, London, Oxford and Cambridge University, and so on and so forth. And he said that part of the problem is that the teachers in the West Indies, like Guyana, Jamaica, assumed, as the British did that, students came to school, speaking English. And in fact, they spoke this Creole mix of, of English and West African languages and Indian languages. And so on. Which of course the teachers didn’t like at all. And he said that what happened is that very often prizes went to the best mimics rather than the really creative students who were using their Creole. And suggested that people should be trained to understand the Creole and to work with the Creole and to teach children in the Creole and then to transition them, you know, to develop another register in, in English.

So I found that article very inspiring, and I basically put, put the article in one hand and I took a catalog from the university of California, Santa Cruz in the other hand. And I select courses in linguistics and so on. I must say when I first began linguistics in Santa Cruz, in many ways, it was, kind of boring. Oh my goodness. It, this strong, strong sense of applying it to this larger problem of helping speakers of the vernacular learn to use the Standard through contrastive analysis and so on that really motivated me.

When I finished my bachelor’s I was lucky to get a Danforth fellowship to go grad school. And I choose University of Pennsylvania, where Bill Labov was. I thought a lot for going to Berkeley. And I thought of going to Stanford where Charles Ferguson was, but I’d already taken a, summit with, with Charles Ferguson and I wanted to get more expertise in African American English.

Those were the factors. By the way, if I didn’t get a scholarship and I wasn’t eligible for most Americans scholarship, cause at the time it wasn’t an American. If I didn’t get a scholarship, I was gonna go back home. And just become a teacher. I had, I had taught that at school the year before, and I, I knew that wanted and go and drink beers at the local and I wasn’t a good beer drinker. I, I couldn’t take more one or two beers. So I thought that that was a good prospect for me. I got the fellowship and I was able do a PhD.

I forgot question you asked in the first place.

Carrie Gillon: Well, it was just like how you fell in love linguistics, but I think you answered that.

John Rickford: Yeah, absolutely. I think is that, you know, from the beginning you were finding things that nobody had known before. Like for instance, and I, we lived in West Philly and funny, a funny town. People always ask you where live. They wanna know exactly what street and so on. It all means something in terms of background and so on and so forth. And we lived near to 52nd street, which was known as, as, as the strip for various reasons, it was kinda rough neighborhood. And we lived in one of these homes that are all joined together, you know, like. Cities. I like that. We would hear a lot of people. It was Black, the area was Black and you’d hear people singing. And we’d hear a lot of African American English. And I asked about, maybe in the first quarter or certain first year, I said, you know, “have you heard this expression with stressed “been”? People say, you know, oh, “I’ve been at that.” Or “I’d been told him that long time that.” And he said “no.” And I said, “wow, I hear it all the time.”

So I wrote a paper that and again, it was a novelty. You would hear, “be done.” There was a woman, but she was pregnant who planned to move before she became pregnant. And the person said, let’s say “Jillian, better look out. She be done had her baby at, at north 51st.” In other words, she will have had her baby by the time she plans to leave, it’s like a future past perfect. Right.

Very complex the whole, the whole African American English, people just talk about things that are left out, but there are things that are in there that means that like- yesterday I heard a speaker and saying, this person uses language, but uses “finna” from “fixing to.” “Finna” means immediate future, it means right now. You can’t leave two hours late and say, “you finna go.”

So there are the whole spectrum of things that I was hearing and, and noticing. And I was so excited about it. Again, that’s one of the things that drew me into linguistics and Labov taught us to really work in the community and listen to what people are saying.

I never talk about it, but his story is like August Wilsons, August Wilson plays with a fancy register. But when he started listening to the way people in Pittsburgh spoke, you know, he said, “this is really rich”, and he put it in all his 10 cycle of ten plays, different, different decades in the 20th century.

So that’s what I’ve also tried to teach my students to don’t just be introspective. Don’t just think, you know what people say. What they say is actually more interesting, than anything you can imagine. And that’s what I, I, that’s why I came to love linguistics. And how it came to love Black talk.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Okay. Definitely interrelated. I, I had a similar thing about like the newness of linguistics in comparison to other fields. So that’s like, I definitely relate to that. Like I was like, so excited as an undergrad, like, oh, there’s all these things we don’t know yet. That’s how I fell in love too.

Megan Figueroa: So many people I know, fell in love with linguistics because of you and your work. So

John Rickford: really?

Megan Figueroa: Yes, absolutely. Right.

John Rickford: That’s nice.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And yeah, and actually I, at the LSA Institute in 2015, I, you did a little talk and I was there and I found it very like empowering and invigorating. So thank you for that.

John Rickford: that’s, that’s, that’s encouraging.

One of the things I wanted to do was play a couple segments to you, if you don’t mind. The first that I wanna play was a section of a guy they called plumbing Simmons. He was an ordinary really like a farmer, but he drove a tractor. He did all kinds of things. He worked in the dredges and so on. But he also on Sunday, he would at these small prayer meetings, he would say the prayer. Because it, the island where I went to has no bridge to the mainland. So the only way to get there is by boat. And guy gave this prayer that just amazed me.

Okay. Your listeners is probably can’t understand everything, but this is, this is absolute poetry. He has, he says “tell him that, got some boys and some got some girls walking up down with a rebellious heart”, but of course that’s what teenagers everywhere are like “tell them that the train they riding on is full of dead man’s bones. me can know our father that the house is on fire on. And the roof is what’s burning down, make them know our father. When you thunder in the east. No man can thunder in the west after you.”

It’s. It’s incredible. So it’s both the repetition the drama of the central metaphors and of course, this is helped by his his, his wife, Agnes, who begins singing, accompanying him. You can hear her coming on as he goes on. So I said, he’s a farmer rather than a poet. In fact, when this finished, everybody was just quiet. And they said, “that was amazing.” And he said, “well, you know, I can, I can kick up a little bit of dust. As long as I got somebody to stoke the fire and keep me going.” He’s talking about his wife singing and so on. And so forth. This is a very ordinary person who is being poetic and powerful in the way he’s language .

Paula Marshall wrote a piece in the New York Times. She’s a Barbadian writer called From the Poets in the Kitchen. She said, you know, her mother and her friends were just domestics in New York, but they would gather in her house every, every, every day after work, she said she called them the “poets in the kitchen” because they would, they would offer all kinds of topics in ways that inspired her. And she said made her a writer too.

So I guess I’m at the point where people think that you have to get rid the vernacular. Everyone has to start speaking English, Standard English, but in fact, vernacular has its own riches. And I, I guess I was trained by people like, like Blake and like, like, and like my undergraduate anthropologists to understand and appreciate the wealth of ordinary language.

Megan Figueroa: I’ve been thinking a lot about how we train out of kids, the way that they, their home language when they get to public school. And you wrote a lot about the fight over Ebonics in Oakland schools. I wonder if you see the same thing happening today in schools?

John Rickford: Well, I think the problems still remain. Black schools are still especially bad. Schools- I was reminded, in fact between that and the other topic, looking at schools in Florida, we had a speaker last night, Nandy Sims, who is doing work in Florida, and those schools are just terrible. Part of the, part of the problem, not all, part of the problem is that the kids do speak the vernacular. Now, depending on the school, the teachers may speak with vernacular too, but they don’t systematically take it into account. So there’ve been, there’s been work that shows that some kind of contrast, instead of trying to teach entire English grammar, which is what they think they’re doing, the number of points on which, which Vernacular English differ from Standard English in a significant way are limited, you know, maybe 25 30, you know, quarter as against 500 things to be covered in English grammar. And approaches that actually contrast the Vernacular with the Standard, first of all, they’re very popular students, and secondly, they work. Most teachers remember public don’t understand that.

I was, was asked by the superintendent in Oakland back in 1986, you know, to provide some advice and so on everybody, everybody was saying that it’s important for students to learn English and to read English and so on. I say, okay. I all agree on that. The question is how , by what means? Everybody’s happy to keep you doing the same things to be doing for decades that aren’t working. Why don’t we try some other methods which have worked if we want to get started on a small scale and see how those work more effectively.

So Oakland was trying to do more vernacular things. I think a lot of it has stopped now. A lot of people have left the district and have retired and so on and. But I think you do need to do some, something that excites students and gets them on board.

I’m not sure if I did in this book, but elsewhere have contrasted the some work done by a student called Ann Piestrup. She contrasted teachers who she called interrupting teachers. Every time you made a mistake would interrupt you and correct you and children withdrew from participation, because everything they said was met with criticism and insult, whereas the Black artful teacher would ignore a lot of that and build on their enthusiasm and got them interested and excited. And when you actually looked at test scores, the teachers, the children being taught by the artful teacher were are doing much better than the children who were taught by the interrupting teacher.

Nikole Hannah-Jones has pointed out in many ways segregation has increased.

Carrie Gillon: Yes,

John Rickford: and schools have gotten worse. Worse and worse. And she’s pointed to the difficulties that schools are having. And it’s probably a, a lone voice in the wilderness.

So anyhow schools in general are bad, especially in Black neighborhoods.

Now Jeantel, because the point is she was talking to Trayvon Martin throughout this encounter, the killing of Emmett Till, as I point out who was 14 years old, only 14, by the way, in 1955 by Ron Bryant and Milam the two white men who brutally murdered him. And they, because they said he made some comment to the wife, his wife, which she later, by the way, said was not true.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah.

John Rickford: But that whole incident, nobody witnessed it or heard it . So in this case, Jeantel, Rachel Jeantel, was talking to Trayvon Martin on his cell phone. So she was hearing everything. So she was a direct witness to everything that happened until his struggle with George Zimmerman, where the microphone was knocked from his mouth. And, you know, she couldn’t hear, but she was a really important witness. She spent six hours on the stand. She should have been considered highly credible, but she wasn’t. And I think this is largely because she spoke in this deep vernacular. So her, her mother is Haitian. She speaks by the way, Haitian Creole fluently to her mother. Her mother speaks in, in fluent Haitian Creole. Her father is from a Dominican Republic. So he speaks Spanish. So she speaks some Spanish. So she’s 10 times more multilingual than average person in the United States. And yet people castigated her because of her vernacular. Said that she was stupid and ignorant and the jury basically didn’t believe her.

I got to meet Rachel Jeantel . And then basically I started teaching her to read by Skype and by FaceTime and so on and so forth. The only thing she wanted to read about was Black history. So she wanted to read stories of Black characters and so on. And then she, she actually wrote this, these words, a little, little kind of poem. And I have that on page 168. Sadly a Young Soul Had to Die, by Rachel Jeantel: “my mindset yesterday every day is I defeated yesterday. I elevate to today. I control tomorrow. I say this because it became a routine. You see behind this smile, I’m a Black woman who society feels threatened by and perceived as ghetto. You don’t know that you feel pain, just like anyone else. They ask, “what do you want?” In other words, “why can’t you shut the hell up and accept the way things are.” Society will never see you as equal. Sadly, a young soul had to die for me to open my eyes.”

She’s referring of course to Martin. So I think she’s just one example of a person who received a very poor education in Florida schools. And apparently that’s still the case. I read in other papers that the achievement level of people in the class was comparable to hers. And and if probably almost any other person would’ve spoken as she did and would’ve fared as well as she did. And I, I fear that until more is done for speakers like that, community members like that, particularly in Florida, but there are many other parts of the country, you’re not gonna see the kinda achievement and upliftment that’s needed throughout the country.

I could go on and on about that. But I, I wouldn’t I don’t want to be speaking on soapbox.

Megan Figueroa: I’m complete agreement with you. It’s, it’s a huge crisis and more people should 1) know about it. And 2) care that it’s happening.

John Rickford: Yes, because alternative to this is of course, when people don’t have a education, alternative is going to be jail. That’s not a promising alternative.

Megan Figueroa: Yes. The school to prison pipeline is quite strong.

We would love it if you would share with us what you feel is one of, of the most important things you’ve learned over the course of your career as a linguist.

John Rickford: In two minutes. Let me see. The first thing is contrary to popular impression, all languages are structured. The way I sometimes put it to students this way. If languages were not regular and structured, you couldn’t learn them.

Megan Figueroa: Right? Yeah.

John Rickford: The fact is if I decided I would call a book “blabu” and you, and so on. We can never communicate, much less if our phonemes and our morphemes, and, and our syntax was that variable and the things that always excite me was language is finding in it, structures and patterns that we are totally unaware of.

Carrie Gillon: Mm-hmm same.

John Rickford: So when people state vernacular languages have no, no structure or no regularity. That’s just nonsense. And, and because of the fact structured, you can use that fact to teach them other languages.

I mentioned a couple days ago, in fact, to Nandy Sims, the bridge readers, which were developed by Mifflin, they would use deep vernacular in the first series, and then we have intermediate vernacular and then they would have the Standard. Those bridge readers were written up in I think it was Newsweek or Time Magazine years ago, a person was, was writing about how wonderful they are. Look at their success they’re having! And in fact, the reaction to that was “What! They’re using vernacular in the schools. No, no, no, no, no!”. So in fact, the reaction to that had the effect of killing the readers.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah.

John Rickford: Houghton Mifflin said “we don’t think we’ll actually go ahead with this project because there’s a lot of community negativity about this.” And so the project was very promising at the time was killed.

There, there are some new efforts to do creative things, but you know, you always face this very negative reaction. What they called the negativity of the uninformed.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

John Rickford: Who know so much, but they don’t know anything. And their premises are all wrong. And so let’s just keep doing exactly what we’ve been doing for decades and decades, which things don’t work. Whereas there other- and it’s the same way by the way, in the West Indies, you know, not just talking about America. You know, people would say no, no, no, no, no bad for the kids. That’s what Le Page came up against when he was trying to make these suggestions.

And I argue that you may find out a wild or crazy idea, but the idea of kids failing in large numbers is worse.

Carrie Gillon: Yes.

John Rickford: You know?

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah.

John Rickford: So you would be convinced that you need to do more. And, and, and to try new things

Carrie Gillon: it’s like that Simpsons meme “we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas.”

Megan Figueroa: yeah. And you see children failing in large numbers. It’s not the children at that point. It is the system.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah, exactly.

John Rickford: Yes.

Carrie Gillon: Well, this has been such a great conversation. Thank you so much.

Megan Figueroa: Such an honor.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Thank you for coming on.

John Rickford: Oh, was a delight. It was really fun talking to you all.

Megan Figueroa: It was so lovely.

Carrie Gillon: And we always leave our listeners with one final message. Don’t be an asshole.

John Rickford: Don’t be a linguistic asshole, at least.

Megan Figueroa: Exactly.

Carrie Gillon: Yes.

The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Grantham. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at And our website is

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