Friday, October 21, 2005

You know who I am

So, at long last, the trial of Saddam Hussein gets under way, and for anyone studying language and power, cor, what a treat! Courtroom drama, or what?! In fact, I was reading the edited transcripts this morning and the dialogue is so good it could have been scripted for theatrical effect. Which is a point worth pondering, given that Saddam Hussein stated directly yesterday that all this was simply theatrical spectacle for George Bush and co.

So, think about the power dynamics that are expected in the courtroom - go and sit in on a trial if you can (they let the public in for nothing...). What we usually see is the power very squarely resting first of all with the judge, then with the lawyers, and also with the court officials as they direct the logistics of the proceedings. The ritualised aspects of the language use - "all rise!", addressing the judge as "your Honour" - enforce this power dynamic, but it also plays out in the trial itself. The defendant only generally gets to speak when spoken to, and then to answer the questions posed by prosecution and defence counsel. And these questions are hardly open, seeking to lead the defendant in one direction or another to draw out evidence upon which their case will rest.

So, Saddam Hussein. Check out the edited highlights on the links below, and see what he's up to in challenging those power dynamics. Note that the transcript used by the Times (first link) was provided to the press by the US military, and the bits about Bush's theatre have been removed. This bit of censorship, and the way the journalist from The Times presents this, is a mini-story about language and power in its own right... But never fear, that bit's in the (second) BBC link - hurrah for the BBC! Long may such freedoms of expression reign in these isles (she said nervously, waiting for her website to be closed down under new anti-terrorism measures.)

Think about turn taking, about Grice's maxims, about the language he uses to assert his own sense of power. And tune in to the news daily to see what twists and turns this particular linguistic plot takes.

Transcript of Saddam court hearing

Key excerpts from Saddam in court


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