Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The language of the law: linguistic discord in the courtroom

The language of the law: linguistic discord in the courtroom

Wendy Hill

The language of the court and legal professionals is wrought with challenges for the individuals that they serve as well as the institution itself. Though all persons involved in any given courtroom scenario may speak the same language, the observable action of those persons would suggest a lapse between the intent of the court and the expectation of its patrons. This is due to some basic difference in the semantic, pragmatic and metalinguistic expectations they carry. On the one hand, the interpreters of the law employ familiar vocabulary in unfamiliar manners. The law’s long-standing relationship with Latin and almost ritualistic customs add to the confusion. On the other, the litigants are relatively unfamiliar with the style of speaking used by the law and often bring pre-conceived and ill-informed notions of the judicial system and its function. There is some work from Sinclair that employs Grice’s Speech Act Theory suggesting a fundamental separation by the court from discourse pragmatics. This would imply that the greatest chance for resolution lies with the court. Perhaps society should monitor courtroom and legal drama more closely. Perhaps the court should restrict the register it has become so accustomed to. In the case of the latter, there is a widespread push for just that end, referred to as the plain language movement. This paper intends to explore the schism between institution and individual through the register of the legal profession. I employ court transcripts and first hand witnessing of courtroom proceedings as the court clerk to contrast the differing views. (All matter is gathered from the 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit, Michigan-civil division) Discussion of court tradition, reliance on Latin and push for plain speech in legal drafting are examined through academic articles on the topics.   I seek to answer what effect the linguistic contrasts have on the court proceedings and to a lesser extent, the individuals, if any. I wish to determine whether the push for plain language has complicated or alleviated matters. Also, does any of this affect public opinion of the court system overall?

April 6, 2015 - Posted by | abstract

1 Comment »

  1. There is a similar disconnect in the medical community. Medical professionals speak a “medicalese” that requires careful translation when speaking to the lay public, and often times, some of the meaning is lost. Even the traditionally illegible scrible of physicians came to be viewed as part of the coded language of the closed circle in medicine. The push for electronic charting was due in part to a push to demistify some of this language and make it more accessible to those outside of the profession – most certainly the law. Litigation in medical matters is much easier when medical charts can actually be read. Great topic!

    Comment by Glenda Wyatt-Franklin | April 8, 2015 | Reply

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