Language, Dialect and Power in the Courtroom

Abstract

In the field of sociolinguistics, linguists and legal scholars have begun investigating how a speaker’s dialect influences the use of “powerful language” in the courtroom. Researchers in Australia found that individuals holding power use a greater number of linguistic dismissive techniques toward those whose dialects strongly deviate from Standard Australian English (AuE), the prestige dialect of the community (Eades, 2000). Our research is an investigation of language, power and dialect in interactions between lawyers, judges, and “lay people” (litigants and witnesses) in Massachusetts trial courts. Our study examines the extent that individuals holding power in the courtroom (i.e., lawyers and judges) use “powerful language” to silence participants in more submissive roles (i.e., litigants and witnesses) based on these participants’ dialects. The silencing techniques being coded are: interruption, explicit silencing of lay people, and various restrictive question-formations. It is hypothesized that individuals in positions of power will use more silencing techniques on individuals whose dialects more strongly deviate from Standard American English (SAE), the prestige dialect of the United States. Such a finding would suggest that the greatest use of power is exerted over non-SAE speakers, who would, consequently, be given less opportunity to voice their perspectives in court and advocate for themselves. In this poster, our methodology and preliminary results will be presented.