February 20, 2006

Washing the Unwashed

Nobody has to tell linguists that it's difficult, maybe even impossible, for us to use our specialized, insider technical language when we talk to outsiders. For example, some months ago Arnold Zwicky stressed this in his post (see here). His focus was about how one planetary scientist at MIT (of all places) pondered whether the newly discovered planetary orb was a planet or something else, calling the quandary "just a matter of semantics."

It's easy for us to cringe at such mangling of our field but it's a very serious problem for those of us who try to translate our field's knowledge to the linguistically unwashed. Take the courtroom, for example.

Many times I've heard lawyers try to discount arguments with the same mantra, "its just a matter of semantics." I take this to mean that the expert witness chair may not be best place for linguists to represent that we're offering a semantic analysis--at least not until we've first clarified what this means and doesn't mean. It may be more effective to use a slow start-up, first using word meanings or something like that. The same goes for terms like phonology, lexicography, syntax, sociolinguistics, and other ways we have to deal with language. After we've caught their attention, we can say what linguists call these things. It's more understandable to juries if we first use terms more familiar to them, such as the sound system of language, words, sentence formation, language variation, among others. On the cusp of possible jury understandability is psycholinguistics but it, unfortunately, also can conjure up images of mental illness. And dialectology , almost invariably leads to the familiar Henry Higgins response. When we mention, grammar , juries, along with educators and most of the people we meet at dinner parties, usually roll their eyes and mistake it to refer to usage, spelling and punctuation, or anything else they dreaded about their high school English classes.

I suspect that linguists aren't doing a very good job of representing our field to the general public and sometimes I wonder if at least part of our communication problem may be less in our stars than in ourselves. We like to sound brilliant to anyone within hearing range. For example, whenever I try to present my linguistic analysis at trial in ways that the jury will understand, I worry that another linguist might be out there in the audience noticing how I seem to be dumbing things down for jury consumption. When linguists see other linguists out there, the natural tendency is to show off their technical knowledge. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. At least in this context anyway. To be effective, we have to start with jurors where they are and use terms and illustrations that they can understand. The courtroom is a long way from an LSA meeting.

The trick is to testify in a way that gives the jury enough about our field to justify lawyers using expert linguists in the first place, at the same time taking great care to be truthful, accurate and effective as we talk. For me this is a juggling act where I try to apply Grice's maxims as much as possible:

Be informative. Tell the jury only what is necessary, no more and no less. Don't be more informative than is required or else the testimony won't be effective, maybe not even listened to.

Be relevant. Make all the testimony relate directly to the topic, which is determined by the dimensions of the lawsuit. This should be worked out clearly in advance with the lawyer.

Be sincere. Never give the jury false information, opinions or guesses and don't testify about anything for which there is inadequate evidence.

Be clear. Testimony should void obscurity and ambiguity while being brief and orderly.

Academics, and maybe linguists in particular, who are called on to give testimony in depositions or trials often are not familiar with the strange courtroom culture where only lawyers can introduce topics, interrupt, argue, change the subject, ask all the questions and have access to the many other important language rights that everyone else has when they're not the courtroom. When we do get a turn to talk in court, we're tempted to toss in more information than is needed and sometimes we wander off topic to discuss points that may be important to us but not to the jury or even to the case itself. To juries, academics often seem obscure and anything but brief. We're probably more scrupulous about adhering to the maxim of sincerity because this is more consistent with our academic work. But even then we often say more than is necessary in a way that seems obscure to jurors.

Sure, linguists like Arnold have every right to complain that semantics wasn't used properly by MIT's planetary scientist. But this misuse of semantics may rank rather low in the scale of misunderstandings that linguists confront. The problem is a whole lot broader, as those of us on the firing line of applying linguistics to legal matters can attest.

— Roger Shuy

Posted by Roger Shuy at February 20, 2006 10:22 PM