Wednesday, February 23, 2005

So help you God...

Well, goodness me, but there's hot stuff for you on the Language Legend today. 1903 pages of transcription of the Grand Jury proceedings that led to charges being brought against Michael Jackson for molestation and conspiracy have been published on the internet. With extraordinary levels of secrecy surrounding the trial, the authenticity of the documents has not formally been confirmed, but the website on which they are published believes they are genuine. As this is a website which frequently breaks important legal stories, I'm giving them at least the benefit of the doubt for now.

Naturally, I'm only interested in the transcripts from a purely linguistic point of view! First up, transcripts of legal proceedings are always fascinating for the insights they provide into the way that language encodes power. Look at how skilfully the interrogators manipulate language to get certain types of answer from the witnesses. Look at how they use language to establish their authority and to control the proceedings. But what is also interesting in this case is that many of the witnesses are children. Look at how language is used to try and make them feel comfortable. Look at how language is used to discuss difficult subjects, such as sex. Look at how clarification of a child's understanding of the meanings of words is sought to make sure there is no room for doubt. And look at how the children answer the questions. Loads there, eh?

Secondly, the participants in these proceedings are American. At 1903 pages, this is a rich resource for exploring differences between American English and British English, and in the way that language is used in the legal proceedings of the two countries. Are there differences in legal expressions and 'set pieces'? Are there differences in sentence construction, or lexis? What do you see here?

And thirdly, these transcripts throw up all sorts of interesting points about the relationship between language, technology and publishing. The internet makes it possible for these documents to be read worldwide within minutes of their publication. This is a situation that has never before been known. In the past, ordinary interested people have either had to go into court and listen to the proceedings, or, more usually, relied on reports in newspapers. Now, the actual transcripts can be presented to a reading public, from which they can come to their own conclusions. We don't get occasional quotations, or edited highlights - here we have all of the language, unedited and in the raw. That puts us, as readers, in a very powerful position.

It is a fundamental principle of civilised society that everybody deserves to have a fair trial, and is innocent until proven guilty. So, do let Wacko have his say in court before you judge him. I'll tell you this, though - I sure am glad I'm not doing jury service on this one...

Michael Jackson transcripts get published

The transcript


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