Fighting over Words: Language and Civil Law Cases

July 10, 2008

Over the past 20 years, Roger Shuy, professor emeritus at Georgetown University, has published many accounts of linguistic evidence he has contributed in US legal cases. He is almost certainly the most experienced forensic linguist in the world.

Some of those cases have involved bribery, threats, perjury and questionable tape evidence. Others have dealt with commercial contracts; others again with trademark confusion and infringement. Language Crimes and Linguistics in the Courtroom are probably Shuy's best-known books in this country.

In all his books, the chosen cases are fascinating. Overall, Shuy's output is also a body of evidence in itself: of how applied linguistics can be a valuable instrument in understanding how language functions in society - including when language becomes a legal battleground.

Fighting over Words is a short book, packed with corporate cases. These range from contract disputes and deceptive trade practices, through product liability, copyright infringement, discrimination, trademarks and fraud. The legal categories group together complex lived experiences in which language became a crux of dispute: whether, as an insurer maintained, an airline pilot's final words before a fatal crash showed evidence of having been overcome by toxic gas in the cockpit; whether, in a housing case, people's ability to recognise ethnic accents on the telephone offered a means of racial discrimination; whether warning statements provided with a potentially dangerous product were comprehensible and sufficiently prominent; whether a company's public pronouncements showed a tendency towards age discrimination in employment; whether a contractor misrepresented its cost calculations in bidding for a government military aviation contract. It is impossible to read through such actions without constant toing and froing between the case in hand and general issues in corporate and governmental communication that make such cases topical.

Readers who are sceptical about expert evidence in court will want to ask straightaway what, if anything, tools of linguistic analysis can add to a barrister's advocacy and a jury's everyday language intuitions. Despite consulting in a jurisdiction that is far more sympathetic to expert evidence than English law is, Shuy doesn't duck this question. Rather, he makes it central.

Each case is presented less as expert authority than as a language problem in need of resolution. That problem is then dissected, with as much relevant language data presented as is consistent with publication in an accessible and affordable format. In developing his analyses, Shuy stresses the importance of comparing contested stretches of discourse with equivalent examples, and of testing them against how "the same thing" might have been conveyed differently if the aim was genuinely to achieve the purpose claimed by one or other party. Summing up, Shuy invites readers to weigh up, and possibly disagree with, his view of the evidence.

Reading through Shuy's cases, I did find myself sometimes wondering if the evidence points towards a different interpretation. But this, Shuy maintains, is not a decisive argument against linguistic evidence.

In a useful appendix, "How linguists can help in corporate civil cases", he offers an enthusiastic but measured account of how evidence as to linguistic meaning and usage can assist legal argument. He also discusses the working relationship between linguistic expert and legal team involved in any case in which linguistic evidence is admitted.

Fighting over Words is thought-provoking beyond the particular US cases it presents. Each page is a vivid reminder of how open to different interpretations language is and how easily it can become a minefield in social relationships, including commercial transactions and negotiation.

In this respect, the book raises important issues not only about linguistic evidence in the courtroom but about how contemporary public communication is best managed and regulated in a period of interpretive mistrust.

Fighting over Words: Language and Civil Law Cases

By Roger W. Shuy
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780195328837
Published 21 February 2008

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