Archive for Language and the law

More AI shenanigans

Since When Does Eric Adams Speak Spanish, Yiddish and Mandarin?

He doesn’t. But New York City is using artificial intelligence to send robocalls featuring the mayor’s voice in many languages.

By Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Jeffery C. Mays, NYT (Oct. 20, 2023)


The calls to New Yorkers have a familiar ring to them. They all sound like Mayor Eric Adams — only in Spanish. Or Yiddish. Or Mandarin.

Has the mayor been taking language lessons?

The answer is no, and the truth is slightly more expensive and, in the eyes of privacy experts, far more worrisome.

The mayor is using artificial intelligence to reach New Yorkers through robocalls in a number of languages. The calls encourage people to apply for jobs in city government or to attend community events like concerts.

“I walk around sometimes and people turn around and say, ‘I just know that voice. That voice is so comforting. I enjoy hearing your voice,’” the mayor said at a recent news conference. “Now they’re able to hear my voice in their language.”

New York City’s embrace of the technology came this week as Mr. Adams announced a 50-page “action plan” for artificial intelligence — an effort to “strike a critical balance in the global A.I. conversation,” he said, by embracing its benefits while protecting New Yorkers from its pitfalls.

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AI and the law, part 2

Here we go again, but this time on a grander and more dramatic scale:

Pras Michel of Fugees seeks new trial, contends former attorney used AI for closing argument

The hip-hop artist convicted on campaign finance and foreign influence charges seeks to set aside the jury’s guilty verdicts.

By Josh Bernstein, Politico (1016/23)

Notice the high stakes of this trial, since the defendant, among many other serious, wide-randing charges, is accused of acting as an unregistered foreign agent for China.

Fugees star Pras Michel, who was convicted in April on charges of conspiring to make straw campaign donations, witness tampering and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for China, appears to be breaking new legal ground by calling for a new trial by claiming his defense attorneys allegedly relied on artificial intelligence to compile their final argument for the jury.

In a withering motion filed Monday night with a federal judge in Washington, Michel’s new attorneys argued that his Los Angeles-based lawyer David Kenner relied on the fledgling technology at critical points in Michel’s trial, contributing to “prejudicial ineffective assistance of counsel.”

As soon as I saw David Kenner's name and photograph bruited in this case, I thought, "Isn't he one of the most prominent celebrity lawyers in LA?"

Indeed, he is.  See here and here.

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AI and the law

Article in LAist (10/12/23);

This Prolific LA Eviction Law Firm Was Caught Faking Cases In Court. Did They Misuse AI?

Dennis Block runs what he says is California’s “leading eviction law firm.” A judge said legal citations submitted in Block's name for a recent case were fake. Six legal experts told LAist the errors likely stemmed from AI misuse.

By  David Wagner

Key findings at a glance
    • Dennis P. Block and Associates, which describes itself as California’s “leading eviction law firm,” was recently sanctioned by an L.A. County Superior Court judge over a court filing the judge found contained fake case law. 
    • Six legal experts told LAist there’s a likely explanation behind the filing’s errors: misuse of a generative artificial intelligence program. They said they thought Block’s filing bears striking similarities to a brief prepared by a New York attorney who admitted to using ChatGPT back in May.
    • Block’s firm was ordered to pay $999 over the violation. That’s $1 below the threshold that would have required the firm to report the sanction to the state bar for further investigation and possible disciplinary action. 
    • In interviews with three former clients and a review of 12 malpractice or negligence lawsuits filed against Block or his firm, LAist found more allegations of mishandled evictions.

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Mental anguish from having too many English words in Japanese

One thing I revel in about the English language is the huge number of loanwords it has:  French, Latin, Greek, Native American, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, Irish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Maori, Hebrew, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Zulu, Swahili, and so on and on and on.  English has words from more than 350 languages, and they amount to 80% of our total vocabulary. (source)  Not to worry, however, that English will lose its innate identity, since around 70 % of words in a typical text derive from Old English. (source)

I've also long admired Japanese for its rich assemblage of foreign words, perhaps next to English in having the largest proportion of borrowings.  That's quite the opposite of written Sinitic, which has relatively few recognizable foreign words for a major language.  I attribute the difference to Japan having the easy ability to borrow words phonetically via kana and rōmaji ローマ字 ("Roman letters"), whereas the morphosyllabic Sinoglyphic script has not yet developed an officially sanctioned standard for transcribing loanwords directly into Chinese texts.  Informally (on the internet, in private correspondence, etc.), however, writing in China is gradually moving toward a digraphia of Sinoglyphs and the Roman alphabet.  (See the second part of "Selected readings" below.)

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Juridical tautology: "illegal crime"

The news is flooded with stories about Hui Ka Yan 许家印 (MSM Xǔ Jiāyìn), one of China's wealthiest individuals, Chairman and Party Committee secretary of Evergrande Group, the mega real estate corporation that is currently going belly up, being arrested on suspicion of "illegal crimes".  That expression sounded so strange that I had to find out what the Chinese expression was.

Turns out that it is "wéifǎ fànzuì 违法犯罪".  Since this phrase occurs frequently in Chinese texts (221,000,000 ghits), it is a firmly established expression in the common legal lexicon of China.  It is not a slipup.  Furthermore, the English translation "illegal crime" is frequently met in official Chinese media accounts.

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"Hurting the feelings of the Chinese people", part 3

Shared by John Rohsenow and David Cahill / Isham Cook:

From Arthur Meursault (@emptymeursault)

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Grab / Mixed bag of crimes that "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people", part 2

In recent weeks, the odd expression "kǒudài zuì 口袋罪" (lit., "pocket / bag crime"} has become a hot topic).  It's a vague, catch-all term without any juridical / official standing, yet it has left many people troubled over its implications.  To understand why people are unsettled over such a seemingly zany, innocuous term, we will look at it from various angles.

‘Pocket crime’ — Phrase of the Week
Politics & Current Affairs

A new draft law in China may dole out punishments for “harming the feelings of the Chinese people.” It has sparked criticism in China.

Andrew Methven, The China Project (9/15/23)

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The many meanings and faces of "vernacular"

During the first twenty years of my academic career, if anybody asked me what my specialty was, I would have told them something like "medieval popular Buddhist vernacular Chinese literature".  In that usage of "vernacular", which I thought was the standard meaning of the term, I simply considered it a register of language and writing that is distinct from and contrasted with "classical" or "literary", and — to my mind — it was parallel to "popular" or "folk" in a cultural spectrum that ran to "elite" at the other end (I was going to say "at the top", but — being a partisan of "popular" and "folk" — I caught myself).

In college, as an English major, being a specialist on the vernacular meant that I was enamored of Chaucer, and in graduate school and as a young Sinologist, it signified that I concentrated on the first sizable body of non-classical / literary texts archeologically recovered from the far western Chinese site of Dunhuang, concerning which we have often touched here on Language Log, especially in recent weeks.

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Transitive "blink"

Reader Scott Mauldin asks:

I am curious about a unique usage I read in SCOTUS Justice Ketanji Jackson's dissent to the recent cases on affirmative action. She says  “This contention blinks both history and reality in ways too numerous to count.” To me, the usage of "blink" as an transitive verb to mean [I assume] something like "ignore" was completely novel. To see what to me is a nonstandard usage show up in a Supreme Court dissent was strange. Is this common usage in some communities, and if so would you or your readers happen to have information on that usage?

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In North Korea, it's a dire crime to speak like a South Korean, part 2

This is a language war that has been going on for years, and there will never be an end to it, so long as there is a communist North Korea and a democratic South Korea.  It is as deadly as a shooting war, because people die for using the language of the enemy.  I'm not talking about the content of their speech, but rather its very nature.

North Koreans face execution for using South Korean idioms

The Times (6/30/23)

How does this work out in practice?

North Koreans who use the “obsequious” accent and expressions of South Korea face execution under a harsh new law aimed at eliminating South Korea's growing influence on the language used by its communist neighbour.

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The legal standing of the serial comma

[This is a guest post by Mark Cohen]

I am wondering if members of this group have had experience with translating the Chinese serial comma or dùnhào 顿号  [、] ("the caesura sign; a slight-pause mark used to set off items in a series; punctuation mark used between parallel words or short phrases; sign of coordination; ideographic comma; the Chinese comma (、) used for separating items in a list")  In 2007, I was involved in a WTO case where I negotiated an English translation for a dunhao that ended up appearing as a footnote in the panel decision regarding a criminal law.  The statutory language was "fùzhì , fāxíng 复制  、  发行" of copyrighted works.  The question at that time was whether China required  "making" or "selling" [in the English text]  of a copyrighted work or whether both acts were required under the criminal law.  See World Trade Organization, China-Measures Affecting the Protection and Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights, Report of the Panel, WT/DS/362/5 (26 Jan. 2009) , at fn. 82 and accompanying text:  “There is neither "and" or "or" between "making" and "selling", only a Chinese repetitive comma (、) or dùnhào 顿号 (lit., "pause" + "mark; symbol"),  which has no precise English equivalent.”  The panel translated the “serial comma” with a slash “/” which basically preserved this ambiguity. 

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In North Korea, it's a dire crime to speak like a South Korean

But almost everybody does it.  You can barely avoid it.  Especially if you're an athlete.

"North Korea sentences 20 young athletes for ‘speaking like South Koreans’"

Skaters and skiers were caught on video using banned words while playing a game during training.

Jieun Kim, RFA (4/13/23)

The first two paragraphs of the article:

About 20 aspiring North Korean winter athletes were abruptly sentenced to three to five years of hard labor in prison camps after they were found to have used South Korean vocabulary and slang while playing a word game, sources in the country say.

It’s the latest example of authorities imposing draconian punishments to try to stamp out use of the “puppet language” and “capitalist” influences in daily life – despite the flood of illegal South Korean dramas and songs that many North Koreans secretly watch after obtaining them on thumb drives smuggled into the country.

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Invented Chinese name of an LA lawyer

Around 60% of the people living in the San Gabriel area are Asians, and the largest proportion among them are Chinese.  To attract the business of the local population, attorney Scott Warmuth decided to put up Chinese billboards in Monterey Park about a decade ago.  How it happened is described in this article:

"Column: Racial politics, attorney advertising and cultural communication in San Gabriel Valley",

Frank Shyong, Los Angeles Times (4/1//23)

Although the author, who grew up south of Nashville, Tennessee and who writes about diversity and diaspora, is Chinese, he doesn't say much about the linguistics of Warmuth's name choice, and some of what he says is misleading

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