Ideologies of Language: Some Reflections on Language and U.S. Law

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Abstract

I present two U.S. court cases in which I participated as a linguistic anthropological "expert" to show how language ideologies of the law both influence legal outcomes and conflict with "scientific" ideas about language. One case was the murder trial of a young Mixtec-speaking Indian from Oaxaca; the other was a civil suit brought by four Hispanic women dismissed from an elder-care center for speaking Spanish on the job. I identify in the linguistic ideologies of both cases a principle of "referential transparency" that takes the essential business of words, regardless of the linguistic code, to be communicating propositional information. In the second case, 1 describe a further notion of "linguistic paranoia" in which speaking a language other than English is taken as inherently insulting or threatening. I relate these implicit ideological threads to the legal outcomes, to the restricted notions of potential "language rights" that might emerge from such ideologies, and to the clash between theoretical and judicial perspectives on language. [Keywords: U.S. law, language rights, linguistic ideology, expert witnesses, linguistic anthropology]

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