Who is "I" anyway?

« previous post | next post »

The trial of Los Angles private investigator, Anthony Pellicano, took a linguistic twist this week as the Washington Post reports. He is representing himself at his trial and so he has to follow the language rules imposed by the court. This means that any time he wants to refer to himself, he is not allowed to say "I" or "me." He has to say "he" or "Pellicano." This must be hard for him to do and I think it would feel rather strange. Sounds a bit like the royal he, if there is such a thing, or maybe like "your humble servant" that we find in letters from back in the Victorian Age.

I'm surprised sometimes at the way other fields feel (even insist) that their standards of language use are the only ones people can use. However important it may be to carry out legal proceedings uniformly, we have to wonder if this practice distorts our human ability to communicate freely and naturally, especially in matters like calling ourselves "he" or by our own name. Some people wonder why a field like law has the right to be the decider about how, when, and where the rest of us can and cannot use certain forms of language.

As anyone who is called to be a witness knows, there are many restrictions on the way witnesses can talk. For one thing, we can't introduce new topics. We can only respond to topics brought up by lawyers or judges. Other than requesting clarification to badly worded questions, we can't ask questions either. And we have to be concise, giving our answers with no embellishments or we'll be chastised for being irrelevant. Even more troublesome, we have to answer yes/no questions with a "yes" or a "no," even when neither answer is totally accurate.

At its worst, testifying at trial is a game that many witnesses have never played before and that has lots of hidden rules they never could imagine. It's even more problematic for non-native speakers of English, who may not be familiar with pragmatic indirectness or politeness rules, contracted verb forms, nuances of various kinds, and many word meanings.

I have little sympathy for Pellicano's case, except for the fact that at trial he has to refer to himself as "he" or by his own name, as though the person being referred to is not even there. If the court rule is to prevent him from gaining the jurors' sympathy, this too seems a bit odd, since the defense attorney that he doesn't have with him could do the same thing.

Many court rules are good, but this one sounds like it might need to be reexamined. Law can be a bit like a prescriptivist bully sometimes.

Comments are closed.