LINGUIST List 14.2635

Tue Sep 30 2003

Diss: Socioling: Innes: 'Speaking up...'

Editor for this issue: Takako Matsui <>


  1. bronwen.innes, Speaking up in Court

Message 1: Speaking up in Court

Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2003 22:28:04 +0000
From: bronwen.innes <>
Subject: Speaking up in Court

Institution: University of Auckland
Program: The Linguistics Programme
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2001

Author: Bronwen Innes 

Dissertation Title: Speaking up in Court: Repair and Powerless
Language in New Zealand Courtrooms

Linguistic Field: Sociolinguistics 

Subject Language: English (code: ENG)
Dissertation Director 1: Dr Fay Wouk
Dissertation Abstract: 

Law courts purport to be seats of justice, yet there is constant
debate about the even-handedness of that justice and ordinary people's
access to it. This thesis reports on a study of seven criminal
hearings in the District Court in Auckland, New Zealand.
The study focussed on repair (as defined in conversation analysis) and
various phenomena which have been identified previously as
characteristic of 'powerless language' (that is, the speech used by
those in subordinate positions to their social superiors). These
phenomena included hesitations, hedges, intensifiers, witnesses asking
questions, tag questions, high rising terminal intonation, polite
terms, terms of address and well.

The results of the analysis have led to two interesting conclusions.
First, traditionally linguists have considered repair as a means of
dealing with problems. As such, repair itself has often been thought
of as a problem. As far as these seven hearings are concerned, it is
evident that repair is being used as a highly effective interactional
resource in the process of 'coming to an understanding' which seems to
me to be the basis of courtroom interaction.
Second, the study calls the notion of powerless language into
question. While it is true that many researchers have found that
people evaluate powerless language negatively, this study finds that
a) the features which have been said to form the powerless style in
English are not used only by the powerless people in these hearings
and b) these features cannot always or necessarily be said to operate
in a powerless manner during the hearings. The analysis has produced
a more detailed account of the features and their use than previous
studies have achieved. The results show that the notion of powerless
language is highly questionable. This in turn means that further
study is necessary into how people make judgements on language use and
what role such judgements play in the decisions of juries.
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