June 11, 2007

Contrastive focus reduplication in the courtroom

So far today we've had a post about contrastive focus reduplication and another one relating to linguistic evidence in jury trials. In a bit of Language Log synchronicity, today's news contains a wire story that combines these two themes. The terrorism support trial of Jose Padilla, Adham Amin Hassoun, and Kifah Wael Jayyousi is underway in Miami, and the AP article makes it clear that much of the case hinges on semantic arguments, particularly over the term jihad. The prosecutors want to associate the use of the term strictly with "acts of violence by al-Qaida and other Muslim extremist groups," while the defense attorneys have endeavored to show that "Muslims could perform jihad in many ways other than violent conflict."

Similarly, the prosecution has tried to paint the defendants' use of the word "brothers" as indirect evidence of their involvement in a terrorist network:

FBI wiretaps played in court for jurors contain frequent references to "brothers," which prosecutors say means mujahedeen fighters looking for a battle. Defense lawyers contend the term is a common expression among male Muslims.
"There are mujahedeen brothers and brother brothers," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier in one of many arguments about use of words. "There's more context to the word 'brother' than just a Muslim person."

The defense has also questioned how the FBI has translated the intercepted calls from Arabic into English, since the Bureau's translators sometimes rendered "Allah" as "God" and sometimes left it untranslated. Defense attorneys suggest the use of "Allah" is intended to make the speakers sound "sinister," while one FBI translator testified that she chose "Allah" because she thinks "it's a beautiful word." This sounds like a case in dire need of expert testimony from a linguist or two.

[Update, June 13: On his blog Jabal al-Lughat, Lameen Souag eviscerates the prosecution's claim about "brothers," or at least how that claim is portrayed in the AP article. Lameen notes, however, that additional news coverage explains the prosecutors' larger argument, namely that the defendants spoke in code to each other to mask their plans for violent jihad. For instance, the New York Times reports:

Other calls played Thursday and Friday, as interpreted by Mr. Kavanaugh, focused on jihad activities in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Kosovo. There was talk of "brothers" who had been "married" — code for killed in battle, [FBI agent John T. Kavanaugh Jr.] said — and of interference by "the dogs," or the United States government.
Mr. Kavanaugh also said a reference to "eating cheese" was code for waging jihad. But he said he had no idea what a reference to a "reservation on the female donkey" meant.

A sidebar to the Times article provides further prosecutorial interpretations, such as "go to the picnic" being code for "travel to an area of jihad." So it's really all about secret code sharing, to tie the case to yet another Language Log post.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 11, 2007 03:20 PM