JOHN RICKFORD (2017-2023) is a leading sociolinguist and world-renowned expert on African American Vernacular English (AAVE). He is Professor of Linguistics and the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of the Humanities, Professor of Education (by courtesy), and a Bass University Fellow in Undergraduate Education at Stanford University.
Professor Rickford is considered to be one of the towering figures in the linguistic and historical study of vernacular language in the African diaspora. He is one of the small number of scholars in the field–Noam Chomsky and William Labov—to deserve the title of leading research linguist and prominent public intellectual. His scholarly contributions run the gamut from important descriptive research on African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Caribbean varieties, to work of historical significance on the origins of AAVE, to research on AAVE syntactic patterns with important consequences for syntactic theory, to his current research demonstrating that basic linguistic misconceptions may influence major legal and political decisions.
Since the 1970s he had worked to document AAVE and other poorly studied varieties of English spoken throughout North America and the Caribbean, which has contributed greatly to the understanding of the grammatical regularities and structure of AAVE and was a strong voice of reason during the national Ebonics debate when the Oakland School Board decided to recognize the vernacular of their African American students and use it in the teaching of Standard English.
His recent work bridges the disciplines of social linguistics with legal studies, analyzing the adverse consequences of the misunderstanding of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in criminal trials. Modern linguistics teaches that all varieties of human language are qualitatively equivalent, but this result does not stem from political correctness; it is the result of a century of linguistic research, including the work of Labov and Rickford and their colleagues over the past five decades on nonstandard North American Englishes. The basic inability to distinguish between linguistic difference and quality of thought or expression leads to tragic results in our courts and public discourse on a nearly constant basis—this is best recognized most recently through his work relating to testimonies in the well-publicized Travon Martin murder investigation.
Among his numerous honors, Professor Rickford was recently the President of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) from 2015-2016, from which he was recently awarded the best paper in Language 2016 Award. He was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2017).