a blog so you can keep with him

The Final Language & Power Paper

This is the final paper I’m going to write outside of class for “Language & Power”. Next week we have some short essay responses for our final, but that’ll be within class time. So! This should just about wrap up my homework for my courses this quarter, except for putting together my portfolios and writing evaluations. I enjoyed this quarter very much, and I’ve enjoyed this year at Evergreen immensely: I’m very happy I’m here.

A short intro to this paper: for the past month, our class has been working on a short ethnographic study (what with our main subject being sociolinguistics, this makes sense). We had to make several observation sessions at Thurston County Courthouse resultantly, and this is the final document that acts as a short ethnography.

My observations led me to become interested in the dichotomous presentation of speech in court: on-the-record talk, and off-the-record talk.

Let’s set the scene here: a regular Thurston County courtroom fills the basic requirements of a court. There is room for a jury, raised seating and desk for the judge, and seating for the prosecution and defense. There is also audience seating, which is fortunate for my note-taking purposes. All of these elements are physically distinct objects and furniture – the defense’s table is only the defense’s table, it is not in physical contact with other seating, and the same goes for the other groupings listed. This is to visually separate distinctions in the court for the participant and the observer: I understand that the prosecution is a separate legal entity from the defense, and as such this is reflected spatially.

The court record here is taken by microphone. Virtually every desk has a mic attached to it, and on-record discussion is usually given in a loud, projected, and polite tone. This will be discussed more later in the article.

Any time a conversation needs to happen in the court off-record, someone will simply push away the closest mic, and begin a discussion in hushed tones and intimate physical positioning. That is, a speaker will mold themselves around the listener’s stance and posture, in order to move in closer to them. Eye contact is maintained, and hand gestures are kept to a minimum (they seem in many cases to be outside the intended range of vision). Usually a document or computer is involved in the discussion – this is soon centered between the conversation participants in order to better form a focal point for them. Some of the main topics of off-record talk seem to include such ritualized proceedings as filing forms (“Sign here, and then… sign here”), or defendant consultation. I do not have any transcripts of the actual conversations in off-record interactions, though this follows the logic – this is a discussion not intended to be heard in public. Does this reflect the court’s protection of an individual’s right to privacy? I believe not. The physical setup of the courtroom is designed for public speaking – all actions are visible, and microphones are easily accessible for on-record talk in most active locations in the courtroom. This is not spatially designed to reinforce a participant’s ability to seek privacy. Rather, participants seek it out – it is not uncommon to see someone shove a microphone to the side as they quiet their voice. Because it is limited by the audible range of a hushed voice, privacy becomes a very intimate experience in the court. There are also temporal constraints placed on the ability of off-record talk. The court’s activities are constructed as an ongoing discussion, or debate, around a specific legal issue. To interrupt, delay, or ignore that discussion in court is frowned upon immensely, and can lead to legal consequences, such as charges of “obstructing justice”, or “holding the court in contempt”. As such, off-record tends to be brief, and is taken in moments when the speakers involved are not required in the larger discussion.

An example of this is even found outside of the actual courtroom, when a discussion in court occurred about a defendant’s interaction with a clerk in “private” in which he lied about his income taxes. The judge, visibly flustered, responded with a small lecture about how the defendant misbehaved, and reiterated the point that “maybe you don’t understand that when you tell the clerk something it’s recorded.” The court’s proceedings are not limited to the actual courtroom, or even the courthouse.

This is because on-record talk requires very little to be indicated within court proceedings. It is the common form of speech for the court, and is legally characterized by, obviously, the fact that it is verbalized speech that is put on the court record. As we discovered in “The Bilingual Courtroom”, this is further restricted to forms of spoken English. The speaker usually attempts to assist the clerk secretary (who is paid to become the court’s recorder), by talking loudly and articulately. Eye contact is less important here, partially due to the prevalence of reading verbatim from documents during on-record talk. The judge is generally the only individual in the court who may remain seated during on-record talk, excepting witnesses during a court case. All other speakers stand for on-record talk, which aids in visually drawing attention towards themselves and their speech. On-record talk is almost always restricted to single speaker – overlap and interruption are frowned upon, though motioning for objections are a a main exception. On-record speech concerns virtually every subject a court discussion can touch on, with exceptions surrounding translation and interpreting, and so it is difficult to characterize what subjects might be discussed in on-record talk.

Awareness of this vital separation of forms of speech is important. Mastering the demands of on-record talk (i.e. assertiveness, articulation, legal aptitude, and Standard English) can greatly aid the impression one receives from the court. In all of the cases I observed, the defendant was treated more deferentially if they were able to use even simple legal jargon and phrases such as “testify” and “appear before the court”. Conversely, an indication of a lack of legal understanding can provide for a more patronizing and contemptive treatment for a defendant. On-record talk is the dialogue of the court – to understand it is to understand the proceedings of the court. Meanwhile, utilizing off-record effectively and discretely allows an individual to assert their constitutional rights to legal counsel and privacy from the court. Off-record talk provides a route for the court to aid in a very empowering thing indeed: it allows an individual to prepare for on-record talk.


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One Response

  1. Mom says:

    It’s hard to believe that almost a full school year has gone by!

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