Shouting sectarian comments

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There's nothing funny about the religiously-based sectarian strife between Protestant-associated and Catholic-associated soccer teams in Scotland. And there's nothing funny about a physical attack on a sports team manager by a fan at a game (especially a team manager who has already had a violent assault, death threats, bullets in the mail, and a parcel bomb). Yet the linguistic aspects of the story in UK newspapers today seem nonetheless unintentionally hilarious, and I think I wouldn't be doing my duty to Language Log if I didn't share them with you.

As told in the Metro (I cite it here often, and the reason is that it is available free on Edinburgh buses so I save on Language Log's research budget), the testimony in court yesterday was by security director Peter Croy, who watched as, during a crucial match in Edinburgh (11 May 2011) between the Protestant-associated team Hearts andthe famous Catholic-associated Glasgow team Celtic, a Hearts supporter named John Wilson launched a physical attack on Neil Lennon, Celtic's long-suffering manager.

The Metro says that while protecting Lennon by tackling Wilson to the ground, Croy "heard him shout a sectarian comment".

Now, "sectarian comment" is an odd way to describe something that is shouted by a deranged nutcase hurling himself at a soccer manager with violent intent. It sounds like Wilson commented, "I must say, these Catholics certainly do have large families," or something like that. Even in Britain, with its very modest protections for free speech, you can make some sectarian comments without them being used against you in court.

But what you can't do with impunity is aggravate an assault by using language indicative of religious, racial, or ethnic abuse. That makes the assault a more serious crime.

So the details of what was said are important. And luckily we do have them. What Croy heard (from a distance of less than two feet) was Wilson shouting: "Lennon, ya Fenian bastard!". That is not a comment! We need to distinguish commentary from crude abuse.

To be a Fenian is to be a supporter of Irish national independence (and of armed revolution to secure it if necessary), and thus to be on the Catholic side of the dispute in Northern Ireland. And Lennon is indeed a Northern Ireland Catholic immigrant to Scotland. So "Fenian" means Catholic (hence religious), and "bastard" is defamatory (hence abuse). Case closed?

Not quite. Wilson's defense counsel challenged Croy's evidence. Might it not be, the attorney wanted to know, that instead of what he thought he heard, Croy had actually heard the phrase "Lennon, ya fucking wanker"?

That, believe it or not, would be a crucial advantage for the defense. Habitual masturbators do not constitute a religious, racial, or ethnic group, so they do not have the kind of legal protection that makes abuse against religious groups an aggravating factor in assault cases.

Croy stood firm. He was "positive" that he heard Fenian bastard. So that will probably mean extra time for Wilson to serve.

I just wish I had been able to be present in court to hear a defense attorney trying to persuade Croy that "fucking wanker" might be misheard as "Fenian bastard". (The trial was right here in Edinburgh where I live, but of course I didn't know this juicy topic was coming up.) The phonetic similarity claim seems dubious to me; but perhaps they should have had a linguist in as an expert witness.

Mark Liberman would have been able to produce a couple of sound spectrograms to compare. I just treasure the fantasy: "If you look here," says Mark to the jury, pointing at the large screen with a laser pointer, you can see that the positions of the first and second formants clearly indicate a high front unrounded stressed vowel in the first syllable, whereas in the defendant's central Scottish dialect the first syllable of fucking has a fairly low central or back vowel, slightly rounded. (If I could have the next slide, please.) Here we see a scatter plot of the F1/F2 values for a thousand Glasgow soccer fans shouting fucking wanker, and on the y axis you can see how…"

As it turned out, they didn't engage a linguist to do a presentation on the phonetic plausibility of the defense case; but I just like to imagine these things, OK?

Update, 1 September 2011: Now for the unfunny bit. To my utter astonishment, I learn from all the front pages of the Scottish newspapers this morning that the jury found Wilson not guilty of aggravated assault. Wilson actually admitted that, during a match at which the atmosphere was poisonous with sectarian songs ringing out from the stands, he did indeed get so angry that he launched himself at Lennon and hit him. So he could hardly be found guilty of less than "breaching the peace", which the jury agreed on. But on the more serious charges of assault and religious aggravation of assault the verdict was the special Scottish not-so-sure one called "not proven".

The newspapers nearly all had this on the front page. They are all staggered. One ran a large color photo of Wilson flying at Lennon and grabbing his head before being tackled by Croy, and beside it the headline "WHAT PART OF THIS IS NOT ASSAULT?". I must admit that I have not been so surprised by a verdict since the murderer O. J. Simpson slashed two innocent people to death in Brentwood (one of them the mother of his children) but was found not guilty. Some combination of the defense "fucking wanker" argument and the defendant's sincere remorse ("It must have been awful for him; I can't say how sorry I am to Mr Lennon") must have convinced the jury to go light on him. He was remanded in custody for sentencing next month. I hope the verdict will not be taken as a green light for more sectarian insults and physical violence in Scottish soccer culture.

Extra update, 2 September 2011: The day after the verdict, one of the Scottish tabloid newspapers announced in a front-page story that Wilson was known to have beaten up his girlfriend quite badly while she was pregnant (the jury were not told this, of course). Hearts must be so proud.

[Sectarian comments are closed, on the advice of the Edinburgh police, the Scottish Football Association, and the Vatican.]



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