Document Type


Publication Date



This is an upper division course that has been certified as a General Education Course in the area of “Lifelong Learning”. The course also is part of a “Social Justice” GE Path, which encourages students to select their GE courses around a particular theme. The course draws students from a variety of undergraduate majors, including Psychology, Business Law, Political Science, History and Sociology.

The course investigates the role that language and linguistics play in the legal written and oral discourse. In doing so, it hopes to serve two purposes: (1) to illustrate and explicate essential qualities of natural languages and language use, most notably in the areas of semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis and sociolinguistics with the help of examples from the legal discourse and (2) to examine the functioning of the legal system where it interacts with language, taking into account what is known about language form and use from the field of linguistics. The course emphasizes active student participation and an explicit connection between theory and practice. Students apply their acquired knowledge about linguistics and the law to practical and current societal issues in the form of class presentations, weekly electronic postings, a term paper and a variety of other activities.

Some of the questions and topics that are addressed in this course are:

- How does legal language differ from other registers in terms of sentence structure, vocabulary and pronunciation? Why is it used? Does it work (for legal and lay audiences) and is it necessary? Challenges and successes of the Plain English Movement.

- What determines the meaning of an expression? Distinguishing word meaning, sentence meaning and speaker intent. To what extent can the meaning of a text be determined by just looking at the text itself? Textualism, Originalism and the issue of “Activist Judges.”

- The language of police cautions, requests to search property, requests to speak to a lawyer: how consensual are consensual searches? The role and interpretation of indirectness in discourse.

- Bribery, threats and perjury. How can one establish that someone has attempted to bribe someone else? How do we know that the bribe has been accepted? When does a threat “count”? Characteristics of conversations that signal cooperation, specific intent or lack thereof.

- Conversational turn taking rules in the courtroom and their effects: for example, the relative powers of attorneys and witnesses in creating a narrative; questioning techniques.

- Code switching and dialects in the court room: Stylistic and dialectal code switches by attorneys and their possible effect on jurors; the effects of non-standard language use by witnesses on the perceived veracity of the testimony.

- Interpreters and the law: The challenges of interpreting testimony and language rights.

- How unique are human voices and pronunciations? Can one determine authorship based on orthographic, grammatical and lexical characteristics of a text?

To access PowerPoint slides for this presentation: Click the "Download" button on the upper right-hand side of the page.

Course documents related to this presentation (LSA Member Login required):

Language and the Law Syllabus--