On Thursday, the defense in the Derek Chauvin trial played a body cam video clip of the arrest of George Floyd, that subsequently led to his death. As part of their broader strategy of casting aspersions on Mr. Floyd’s character to sow doubt among the members of the jury, they played an audio clip with multiple speakers and significant background noise, and claimed that Mr. Floyd said “I ate too many drugs.” They attempted to convince the witness on the stand, a use-of-force expert from the LAPD, that Mr. Floyd had said “I ate too many drugs.” Initially, the expert agreed, but he very shortly took that back, and stated he thought he might have heard “I ain’t do no drugs.” I was made aware of this shortly after it happened, and subsequently many people reached out to me about it, because I am an expert on African American English (AAE) structure and accents, and I am an expert on miscomprehension and misrepresentation of AAE in the courtroom. After reviewing and analyzing the audio, it is my expert professional opinion that Mr. Floyd did *not* say "I ate too many drugs," and instead said "I ain't do any drugs."
I took to Twitter to write a short thread about the audio in question, and promised a longer blog post. This is that post. Regardless of legal strategy on either side, I think accuracy is important, as getting to the truth will help ensure a just outcome. It is unlikely that the prosecution team in Minneapolis would benefit from my or any other expert witness testimony, as the defense was unable to convince their witness to concede the point, and he instead maintained that George Floyd did not claim to do any drugs.
There is linguistic and non-linguistic evidence for this analysis. I will discus each in turn.
1. Mr. Floyd speaks African American English (AAE), and makes use of the negative marker "ain't." Earlier, in body cam footage, he said "I ain't do nothing!" ("I didn't do anything" in classroom English). This will be relevant later. AAE is not the only variety that uses “ain’t” but it does make use of “ain’t” in some ways that other varieties of English do not, especially in the past tense. See, for instance, Sabriya Fisher’s dissertation, available here, which draws the explicit link between “I ain’t do” and “I didn’t do.”
2. In many varieties of AAE and in Mr. Floyd's speech, "ain't" is pronounced [e͡ɪ̃ʔ]. If you don't read IPA, the important part is that the n is often pronounced as nasalization on the vowel, and not as a separate, following segment (think of French "on" or Portuguese -ão). I have provided an example of two different ways of saying “ain’t” — one with a fully distinct /n/ and /t/, and one pronounced with nasalization on the vowel and /t/ realized as a glottal stop: [e͡ɪ̃ʔ].
3. Mr. Floyd's pronunciation of the oo vowel in "do" follows a pattern common in most varieties of North American English, where it glides between two vowels...linguists sometimes represent this as /uw/. w is VERY close to m (try for yourself, compare "awa" and "ama"). The main difference between the two is whether you mostly or completely close your lips (and how much air then goes out your nose). Going back to "awa" and "ama" how confident are you that you could clearly distinguish them in speech while under duress? From the earlier footage, it is also clear that Mr. Floyd nearly closes his lips entirely when saying that /uw/ vowel.
4. While textbooks (such as Dr. Lisa Green’s fantastic African American English: A Linguistic Introduction) and article about AAE will explain that AAE uses negative concord (also known as "multiple negation" or "double negatives"), it is not always obligatory, and there are some instances when speakers may use "any" instead of "no." For instance, for emphasis, as in "I ain't do ANY drugs." I add this in part because well-intentioned linguists, some of whom have studied AAE and some of whom may not have, have made the claim he said “I ain’t do no drugs,” but as the evidence will show, he said “I ain’t do any drugs.”
5. There was significant noise in the audio, and multiple voices talking at the same time. I believe the noise and other voices contributed to the incorrect perception that Mr. Floyd said "too many" and not "do any". It is highly irresponsible for the defense to have played audio and asked a witness to determine what Mr. Floyd was saying while there was so much noise and so many other voices. In fact, one of these overlapping voices contributes to the perception of an /m/ in Mr. Floyd’s speech. At exactly the time Mr. Floyd is saying “do any” a responder is saying “was he responsive?” The /w/ in “was” happens right in the middle of “do any” and both speakers producing /w/ contributes to the perception of an /m/, as both are voiced and bilabial, and noise makes it harder to distinguish nasals from non-nasalized segments (that is, /m/ versus /w/).
6. nasalization (like in the word "ain't") is hard to hear in a noisy channel. It's not surprising that "ain't" could have been misheard. In fact, this is exactly the kind of mishearing I wrote about in 2019 in Language, with Jessica Kalbfeld, Ryan Hancock, and Robin Clark.
Because I was curious just how confusable these two statements are, without all the extra noise, I recorded my own voice saying “I ain’t do any” and “I ate too many.” I used my own voice because the audio from the body cam is so noisy, with so many overlapping voices, that it is impossible to perform a meaningful spectrographic analysis. As you can see, they are EXTREMELY similar. The main cues for “I ain’t do any” are decreased loudness of some frequencies. This means that in a noisy channel — say, a body cam with lots of movement and multiple overlapping voices — it becomes difficult to tease these apart phonetically, and we have to use both what we hear and outside world knowledge: what other sounds are contributing to our speech perception? What is the quality of the audio? What dialect is the speaker speaking? Is the sentence plausible? Are there other plausible, perhaps more plausible, alternatives?
It’s clear from the above that the two options are very similar, so here are some of the differences. Differences which are effectively obliterated by the noise in the unprocessed audio the defense played. The key points are that
/d/ and /t/ are usually only distinguished at the beginning of a word by aspiration (an aitch-y kind of sound) which would be masked by noisy audio, so “too” becomes plausible in part because of their refusal to process the audio.
/w/ and /m/ are distinguished by full closure of the lips, and airflow out the nose. In recorded audio, this means some frequencies are not as loud for /m/ as for /w/, but they’re otherwise basically the same. On a spectrogram, this really just means that some of the shape of an /m/ is slightly lighter than a /w/. In a noisy channel, this distinction is again hard to hear, and we rely on our brains to fill it in based on what we expect to hear. Which is, in part, shaped by our biases about the speaker. There is plenty of work in this domain, especially as relates to housing discrimination, including research by John Baugh, and recent (forthcoming) research from Kelly Wright.
Certain pronunciations of “ain’t” and “ate” are only distinguishable, again, by nasalization. Again, this distinction is made harder to hear by noisy audio, cross-talk, etc.
7. "I ain't do any drugs" is a normal, grammatical sentence in AAE. Comparing Mr. Floyd's statements earlier in the stop ("I ain't do nothin'") to the statement in question, the first 3 syllables sound EXACTLY THE SAME. We have audio of him saying "I ain't do" to compare against, and it's clear that's what he's saying. Watching the video, he also draws his lips very close together when pronouncing “do,” which may further contribute to the /w/ ~ /m/ confusion the defense attempted to sow with the later audio clip. If we really wanted to get to the bottom of this, we'd also want to know how Mr. Floyd pronounces the past tense of "eat." Given his upbringing in the south, there is a high likelihood that it is pronounced with a different vowel than "ain't." Earlier recordings, or speaking with his family might illuminate this. I would not be surprised if his pronunciation of "ate" is closer to [ɛt] "et". But we can't ask him anymore.
1. "I ate too many drugs" is a strange sentence. I have known plenty of people who have experience with drug use, and none have ever referred to it as "eating drugs." This is just not how people talk, and is highly implausible. The only example I can think of that discusses drug use with “eating” is a reference to the Odyssey, used during the Opium Wars in the 1800s.
2. Context of the speech act is important. The defense claims that Mr. Floyd was freaking out (perhaps due to substance abuse). It is clear, watching the video that he is begging for his life, and attempting to negotiate, but defer to the officers ("please, mister officer").
3. Why would someone who has been insisting for minutes "I ain't do nothing" suddenly switch to the bizarre sentence "I ate too many drugs" interjected in the middle of other protestations of innocence?
4. Misunderstandings or misrepresentations of AAE are often used to discredit and discount Black people's speech, especially in a judicial setting. See John Rickford and Sharese King’s fantastic 2016 article (available here), or Jones, Kalbfeld, Hancock & Clark 2019, (available here) both in Language, the flagship journal of the Linguistic Society of America.
It is possible that the defense is not acting cynically, and simply lacks basic knowledge about spoken African American English, but this is not the first egregious mistake they've made. Last week, they claimed his statement that he had been "hooping" (that is, shooting hoops, also known as playing basketball), was an admission of ingesting drugs rectally (no, really. See this article about it, for instance.). Perhaps this goes without saying, but not only is "rectally ingesting" not what "hooping" means, but also not what "eating" refers to. This is also not the first time the crowd-sourced Urban Dictionary has been used in a legal setting to "explain" African American speech, with absurd results; in Jones, Kalbfeld, Hancock, and Clark 2019 we discuss a case in which a judge went to Urban Dictionary to figure out the meaning of the word finna. As an aside, people were mad that it was recently added to Merriam-Webster, but being documented in a real dictionary has real-world ramifications in the judicial system.
There is much more to say about this, but I want to reiterate: my expert professional opinion as a linguist whose PhD and research program revolve around AAE, and as someone who lives in and grew up in AAE speech communities, is that Mr. Floyd unequivocally said "I ain't do any drugs."
Lastly, it is important to share the voices of Black people who speak AAE and who have the appropriate expertise (and who fit one or the other of those criteria), which is why I am careful to cite such scholars and point reporters, and lawyers seeking expert witnesses, in their direction. As we all should. None of us should stand idly by and watch injustice. We should all be fighting for equal access to justice under the law, and I that is why I am adding my voice to the voices of others.
©Taylor Jones 2021
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