Archive for Language and the law

Bavarian Rhapsody

"La Bavière veut imposer aux étrangers de parler allemand, même « en famille »" Le Monde
(12/7/14)

L'Union chrétienne-sociale (CSU) qui dirige la Bavière depuis des décennies veut empêcher les étrangers de parler une autre langue que l'allemand, même en famille….  C'est d'autant plus risible que les Bavarois eux-mêmes utilisent un allemand bien éloigné des standards officiels et parfois même peu compréhensible dans le reste de l'Allemagne.

The CSU, which has governed Bavaria for decades, wants to prevent immigrants from speaking a language other than German, even at home…. It's even more ridiculous that the Bavarians themselves use a variety of German quite far from the official standard, and often nearly incomprehensible in the rest of Germany.

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Plebgate judgment

I spent Monday, November 24, in courtroom 13 of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. For a small part of that time, I testified as an expert witness; for the rest of the day, I was an interested spectator.

What was the occasion? Peter Walker explains ("Andrew Mitchell and the Plebgate affair explained for non-Brits", The Guardian 11/27/2014):

It all began on the evening of 19 September 2012 when Mitchell, then chief whip of the government – effectively the enforcer for the ruling party, the person who keeps discipline and makes sure ministers vote as they are ordered – tried to cycle out of Downing Street. He was in a rush, en route to an engagement, and wanted to ride directly out of the main vehicle gates.  

But to Mitchell’s displeasure, he was told to dismount and walk his bike through a pedestrian entrance. He argued with the officer on duty, PC Toby Rowland and, according to the officer’s account of the exchange, told him:  

Best you learn your fucking place – you don’t run this fucking government – you’re fucking plebs.  

All this was gleefully recounted in the next day’s Sun newspaper, and even though Mitchell denied using the word “plebs”, the continued bad publicity led him to resign just over a month later.

The row has rumbled on ever since, including minute examination of CCTV footage from the evening in question, and culminating in a legal case which finished on Thursday that saw Mitchell sue the Sun for libel over its story, while at the same time Mitchell was sued by PC Rowland for calling the policeman a liar.

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Rule of / by law

Because it has been very much in the news in recent days, the question of how to translate the Chinese term fǎzhì 法治 (lit., "law-rule / govern") has come up.  Should it be "rule of law" or "rule by law"?

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Patchwriting by Rick Perlstein (and Craig Shirley)

Alexandra Alter, "Reagan Book Sets Off Debate", NYT 8/4/2014:

Mr. Perlstein’s new 856-page book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” which comes out Tuesday, is proving to be almost as divisive as Reagan himself. It has drawn both strong reviews from prominent book critics, and sharp criticism from some scholars and commentators who accuse Mr. Perlstein of sloppy scholarship, improper attribution and plagiarism.

The most serious accusations come from a fellow Reagan historian, Craig Shirley, who said that Mr. Perlstein plagiarized several passages from Mr. Shirley’s 2004 book, “Reagan’s Revolution,” and used Mr. Shirley’s research numerous times without proper attribution.

In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.

The controversy has three different parts: Perlstein's use of online notes instead of notes within the published book; the ethical status of Perlstein's use of material from Shirley's book, with or without attribution; and the legal status of that usage.  The most problematic of the accusations seem to be instances of what has been called "patchwriting", and that's the aspect of the controversy that I want to focus on.

My conclusion will be that Perlstein did indeed take idea-combinations and associated word-choices and word-sequences from Shirley; and he sometimes did this without specific attribution; but what he did seems to be within the normal boundaries of research methods for narrative histories, as indicated by the fact that Shirley did quite similar things with his own sources.

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Dead and alive: metaphors for (dis)obeying the law

Many Language Log readers are probably aware of the food scandal at OSI in Shanghai, the implications of which have spread throughout much of East Asia, to parts of Southeast Asia, and even beyond, wherever shipments of Chinese meat products have reached.

In reporting this, CNBC made the following point:

"The rules are dead, and people are alive, that's simple," a worker said in the report. "Dead rules and alive people" is commonly used in China to indicate corners have been cut. OSI did not immediately respond to the news report.

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Supreme Court steps away from fetishization of dictionaries, strikes a blow for usage and practice

Below is a guest post by Jason Merchant:


Yesterday, the US Supreme Court announced its decision in the case NLRB v. Noel Canning, a case that turns on the interpretation of the Recess Appointments clause, Art. II sec. 2, cl. 3 of the US Constitution:

"The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session."

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"Redskins" ruled disparaging

Ken Belson, "U.S. Patent Office Cancels Redskins Trademark Registration", NYT 6/18/2014:

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, part of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, canceled the trademark registration of the name Redskins for use in connection with a professional football team, saying that “a substantial composite of Native Americans found the term Redskins to be disparaging.”

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No "linguistics" on Indiana license plates

In Indiana, a police officer successfully sued the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for the right to have a vanity license plate reading "0INK." According to the lawsuit, the message on the officer's license plate represents "an ironic statement of pride in his profession," but when he applied for a renewal his choice was rejected for impropriety. As the Indianapolis Star explains, a superior court judge has ruled that "the standards the BMV used to assess the appropriateness of personalized license plates were so vague that they violated the First Amendment." The lawsuit has also exposed the guidelines that the Indiana BMV is supposed to follow in determining if a vanity plate is objectionable. One of the big no-no's? "Linguistics"!

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Is a fish a "tangible object"?

Or more precisely, is a fish a "tangible object" in the sense that throwing undersized fish overboard would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which states that

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

John Brewer alerts us to the fact that the Supreme Court has recently agreed to review the holding of a lower court that the noun phrase "'tangible object,' as § 1519 uses that term, unambiguously applies to fish.”

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Affirmative action

Yesterday a journalist asked me about the background of the term "affirmative action". I turned up a few things like this, from a (2006 reprint of a) 1954 book French Administrative Law and the Common-Law World:

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"We're updating our novel-length Terms of Service?"

Yesterday I got an email from airbnb.com, under the heading "We're updating our Terms of Service". It starts this way:

Hi Mark,

Our business and our community have grown, so we are updating our Terms of Service, Host Guarantee Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy. These changes will be effective for all users on April 30, 2014. When you use our site on or after that day, we will ask you to agree to the new terms.

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Phrase-hoarding

What do the following phrases or sayings have in common?

  • first-year experience
  • fast-track MBA
  • be the difference
  • cure violence
  • student life
  • students with diabetes
  • one course at a time
  • touched by a nurse
  • we're conquering cancer
  • working toward a world without cancer
  • imagination beyond measure
  • tomorrow starts here

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Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?

Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect is a subject that we have touched upon many times on Language Log, e.g., "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (see especially the remarks in the second half of the original post) and "English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage ."

But now it has become a hot-button issue in China, especially in Hong Kong, where the government's Education Bureau recently made a monumental gaffe by declaring that Cantonese was not an official language of the Special Administrative Region:  "Education Bureau rapped over Cantonese 'not an official language' gaffe:  Claim Cantonese 'not an official language' leaves public lost for words."

Here's an article in Chinese on the uproar that followed the announcement of the Education Bureau that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong.

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