Linguistics and the Law

Robert Rodman’s thesis entitled Linguistics and the Law draws from the conviction of a Haitian-born American sentenced to 12 years for dealing cocaine.

“The verdict was based in part on a surreptitious recording of the drug deal. Although the drug dealer on the tape spoke a dialect of American Black English, and the defendant speaks English with a Creole accent, the State persuaded the jury that the Haitian disguised his voice by purposefully dropping his accent. His ability to perform this feat was attributed in testimony to the fact that he had been an interpreter for the United States Army in Haiti, and was therefore a linguist, and therefore understood ‘sound change’, and therefore could disguise his voice by dropping his foreign accent. This absurd chain of non sequiturs, and the resulting miscarriage of justice, is the result of linguistic naivety and would not have occurred if the court knew that an interpreter is not necessarily a linguist, and that sound change refers to the historical development of languages.”

“Language and the law, once a subfield of sociolinguistics, is now a robust, independent area of study, where lawyers and linguists collaborate to deepen their knowledge. It has spawned associations such as the IAFL that sponsor conferences such as the one for which this paper is written. International journals such as Forensic Linguistics, The International Journal of Speech, Language, and the Law have arisen in which an ever-growing body of scholarship explores the multifaceted effect of language on legal matters.

Most of the work in this field approaches the topic from the point of view of the use of language. For example, trial lawyers learn to avoid language usage that introduces unwarranted assumptions, such as “When did you stop beating your wife?” They do not learn about presuppositions and the logical structure of language. That’s linguistics: the science that describes and explains language.”

http://ljp.utk.edu/linguistics-and-the-law/