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CFL Interviews

Lawrence M. Solan
May 2008

"What linguists do really is use people's everyday, ordinary understanding as their data, and theorise on it."

Professor Lawrence Solan, Don Forchelli Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Massachusetts and a law degree from Harvard. His scholarly works are devoted to exploring interdisciplinary issues related to language and law.

He has authored numerous books, chapters and articles on language and the law, has served as president of the International Association of Forensic Linguistics, and is on the editorial board of The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law.

Last week, Prof. Solan visited Aston University under the Distinguished Visitor scheme. Between addressing the audience at the launch of the Centre for Forensic Linguistics and his talk to Languages and Social Sciences staff and students, he found the time to talk to Nicci MacLeod of CFL about the present and future of the study of language and the law.

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You have a varied background academically and professionally, having both a Linguistics PhD and a Law degree, as well as being a Visiting Fellow in the Psychology department at Princeton. How did you first become interested in the study of language and law?

It was really a coincidence. I finished my PhD in Linguistics in 1978, and then in part because of the job market I applied to study law at Harvard. I was offered a position in the Linguistics department of an American University and had to decide whether to take it or go to Law School. I chose the latter, and while I was there I had a summer job at a law firm in Manhattan that was representing a chemical company. The company was responsible for some severe environmental damage in a small town near Niagara Falls, and had spent a lot of money paying damages to clean it up. They were then trying to claim these damages back from their insurance company, but there was a disagreement over the language of the policy and whether these kinds of damages were covered. My job was to look over the language of this insurance policy and see whether they were likely to succeed. A lot of the arguments seemed to be over punctuation, and restricted versus non-restricted relative clauses, and whether a phrase at the end of a sentence modified the whole sentence or just the last possible antecedent, et cetera. And we were talking about language, and I thought "I'm a linguist, I know how to talk about language!" So I used that as a springboard and started collecting situations in which judges had to write about language, and I looked at how they did that as a phenomenon. And so after quitting linguistics, I found myself drawn back to it within eighteen months!

Could you give us an idea of the kinds of tasks you've been engaged in over the years as the result of your three main fields of expertise?

I don't tend to work on cases as much as Malcolm [Coulthard] or Tim [Grant] do. I do that occasionally, but most of my work involves disputes over the meaning of legal documents. Courts are quite reluctant to allow experts to testify on this kind of thing, because they think "well, we read English just fine, we don't need your help". But, once in a while they do allow experts to contribute, at least in the United States. My perspective on this is, when both sides look like they have a legitimate claim to make about the language, if you're not trained in linguistics, you might not be able to talk about it well, even if you have intuitions. A linguist can act as a tour-guide, bringing the judge or jury through the language. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what the linguist's opinion is, but the linguist can help the judge by presenting the disputed language as a special case of an ordinary language phenomenon. The judge wouldn't have been able to see it that way had a linguist not been there to help. I have testified in a few cases like that. There was one where the dispute was whether there was a difference between the words 'substantial' and 'significant', as they related to a weight-loss product. The advertisement had talked about 'significant' weight loss, but they were accused of actually saying that the product would result in 'substantial' weight loss. The question was, is there any difference? I pointed out that often there is no difference - the reason that weight loss is 'significant' is because it's 'substantial'. 'Significant' means 'important', the only reason it would be important is if you lost a lot of weight. But that doesn't have to be the case, because one can say 'a small but significant amount of weight'. Let's say every time you went on a diet you gained three pounds, but this time you lost four pounds. That's a small but significant amount. In contrast, you couldn't say 'small but substantial'. We looked at a corpus of articles from major newspapers to see where and how these expressions were used, and were able to put forward that distinction.

You've talked about many judges being reluctant to accept this kind of expert testimony. Why do you think that is?

To some extent it's perfectly reasonable. The legal system should not be in a position where every time people are having a dispute about what a document means, linguists and other specialists come in as self-appointed arbiters of language. What linguists do really is use people's everyday, ordinary understanding as their data, and theorise on it. So I think the legal system is right to be unreceptive to that, except in circumstances when both sides seem to be saying something intelligent, and if you don't know how to talk about language you won't be able to resolve it in a way that is helpful in terms of decision making. So I think that the role of the linguist is appropriately limited, but once in a while it's useful.

In what directions do you see the study of language and law moving in the near future? Are there particular domains you view as being particularly important?

Yes, there are several, and this is one of the things that is so promising about this new centre at Aston. One area in particular, and you have three of the leading experts in the field here, is the identification of authors by the style of their writing. That has been a very contentious area in forensic linguistics, with people taking very different views on what criteria should be used, what markers might be relevant - backed up by inadequate basic research. To have an institution that commits itself to developing methods that then prove successful will take a lot of this uncertainty and opposition out of the picture. The certification of qualified practitioners is also useful, but you should really be able to show that you can do it, and that it works.

And what about yourself - anything in the pipeline over the coming months?

I've been working on contract interpretation and statutory interpretion in both the legal and linguistic domains. I hope to be starting on a collaborative project with Ramesh [Krishnamurthy] here at Aston which I hope bears fruit, using corpora to see whether certain interpretations of insurance contracts that are put forth by companies can be shown, one way or the other, to be legitimate. I'm also just publishing an experimental work on the interpretation of contracts, and have more experiments designed in that area. Also, with Peter Tiersma I'm about to start compiling and co-editing the Oxford Handbook of Linguistics and Law, which should be published in 2010.

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Related links

Brooklyn Law School
Lawrence M. Solan's paper on 'Linguistic experts as semantic tour guides'
ACORN Aston Corpus Network

© Centre for Forensic Linguistics, Aston University, Birmingham, UK, 2013