What a linguist does do (part 2)

The problem with calling a post “What a linguist does do (part 1)” is that the pressure’s on to come up with one called “What a linguist does do (part 2)”. I felt I had to put the “(part 1)” in because linguists (does)* do a lot of different things, and not all of us are out recording speakers of endangered languages.

In WALDD (part 1), I mentioned the negative attitudes towards Lokono which have led some speakers to abandon their ancestral language. Language death is not the only possible outcome of such attitudes though: similar judgments are commonly made about languages and language varieties spoken by millions of people, and the consequences can be catastrophic in other ways.

Negative attitudes to languages typically reflect and reinforce social inequalities, and one area in which this can be particularly critical is when language attitudes affect the process of law and justice. Linguists in the subfield of Forensic Linguistics try to uncover the ways in which language use and language attitudes may systematically disadvantage certain groups in legal settings.

(Another) Guyanese linguist, John Rickford, has spoken and written recently on how jurors’ attitudes towards and (in)ability to understand African American Vernacular English (AAVE) affected the trial of George Zimmerman, acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. In this piece, John points to several comments made by one of the jurors (known as B37), who appeared in a television interview with Anderson Cooper after the jury had found Zimmerman not guilty. B37 revealed certain attitudes towards a key prosecution witness and AAVE speaker, Rachel Jeantel, such as the following comment:

because of her education and communication skills, . . . [Jeantel] just wasn’t a good witness.

Indeed, although she had not asked for clarification during the trial, when

[a]sked by Anderson whether she found it hard to understand Jeantel, B37 exclaimed, “A LOT of . . . times!  Because she . . . was using phrases I had never heard before.”

However one feels about the verdict, these linguistic issues clearly affected the trial in a profound way. As John argues:

That jurors found Jeantel incomprehensible and not credible partially explains their verdict.

Maybe jurors were also prejudiced against Jeantel’s vernacular, like those who pilloried her on social networks as stupid, not realizing that her speech is a complex, rule-governed system that linguists have been studying for decades.

Sometimes the reverse situation can be true: witnesses, plaintiffs or defendants may not be able to understand the language of the court. Carolyn Cooper writes in this post about a judge in a Jamaican court, who not only failed to make herself understood to the plaintiff in one case and then the defendant in another, but seemed to take pride in refusing to speak in a language they could understand. As Carolyn writes:

Surely, the judge should know that justice cannot be dispensed in a language that the defendant does not understand!  What bothered me was the haughtiness of Her Honour. She must have realised that the defendant did not understand her.  But it did not occur to her that she needed to use “that” language, Jamaican.

Picture: Lewis Campbell**
Picture: Lewis Campbell/Lost Monkey**

This is why we linguists have a tendency to react strongly to people in positions of privilege and power expressing damning but linguistically naive opinions about the speech of the less powerful.

Language and the law is an area of special concern in the Caribbean, where negative attitudes towards vernacular creole languages, and discrepancies between the language of courts and the first languages of the majority of citizens, are the norm. My colleague, Sandra Evans, recently completed her PhD thesis on language use in St Lucian courts. The official language of legal proceedings in St Lucia is English, but the first language of many St Lucians is Kwéyòl (a.k.a. French Lexicon Creole). Sandra found that there were no systematic ways of ensuring that Kwéyòl speakers could understand and be understood in court, with court clerks usually taking responsibility for interpreting, despite a lack of any kind of formal training.

Deaf people often face similar problems. A few years ago, a Deaf defendant in a murder case in Trinidad almost had a guilty plea wrongly entered because of a problem with the sign language interpretation. The problem had to do with the interpretation of the word “murder”, for which the interpreter used a sign meaning “kill”. The defendant admitted to having killed, but not to having murdered his brother. It was only because there was another skilled interpreter in the court at the time that the mistake was picked up, the trial stopped, and a new interpreter sought.***

Problems may begin before a case gets to court. Not long ago, a curfew was imposed in Trinidad and Tobago. Because there is currently no sign language interpreting of the news, many Deaf people found out about the curfew some time after it had begun. In one instance, reported in the Trinidad Express, three Deaf men, apparently unaware of the curfew, were arrested and held in custody for several days for being outside at night.

The few examples I’ve mentioned here only hint at the breadth of work that forensic linguists do. If you’d like to know more, you could look at this interview with linguist Jim Fitzgerald, in which he discusses his role in finding the Unabomber, read about the linguistic methods used to identify J. K. Rowling as the true author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, or how an analysis of text messaging styles helped to convict a murderer in the UK recently.

*For non-Triniphones “does” is used to indicate a habitual action in Trinidadian English Creole, hence the Mighty Sparrow sings in his song Saltfish “some men does get drunk to face it”. There is no room in this post for any further discussion of the lyrics of that song.

** For more art from my oldest friend, Lewis Campbell, check out his shop and his blog.

*** This newspaper report of the events in the Trinidad Express somewhat misrepresents what actually happened. As it turns out, the person who spotted the mistake in court that day is now pursuing a PhD in Linguistics. The defendant was eventually found not guilty, which might give pause for thought to those currently arguing for the return of capital punishment in T&T.

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