Event representation and legal discussion: novel linguistic theory provides framework to identify grammatical tactics at the service of legal authors' goals

Autor:Paula Delgado Lockhart
Cargo:Licenciada en Traducción Jurídica

El presente artículo pretende introducir a los profesionales del Derecho los conceptos básicos de la Lingüística Sistémico Funcional, una teoría que permite adquirir conciencia de las decisiones gramaticales que de lo contrario se suelen tomar automática y subconscientemente. A su vez, la teoríapermite entender cómo la gramática actúa sobre nuestra percepción de los hechos a nivel subconsciente.... (ver resumen completo)


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1. Introduction

Bibliography on legal narrative and argumentation for drafting effective and compelling statements of facts and legal arguments already exists in abundance. However, at present, all of them fail to include the discoveries revealed by a novel Linguistic theory, called Systemic Functional Linguistics, which provides the theoretical framework to deconstruct any text or discourse for uncovering underlying assumptions, tactics and ideology contained in every text, through its grammatical choices. All this "concealed" information escapes the awareness of ordinary readers, as opposed to that of readers who master this theory, as the theory provides the tools to bring to consciousness the way in which this "hidden" information is realised and crafted into text through grammar to serve the authors' purposes. This article will to introduce the very basic concepts of SFL (Systemic Functional Linguistics) in plain language —for non-linguists—, and finally encourage practicing lawyers to suggest that studies on legal texts in the light of SFL be conducted, with a view to discovering patterns of grammatical choice in i.e. winning cases as opposed to those of losing cases.

Systemic Functional Linguistics were developed by linguist Michael Halliday, a professor and researcher whose career includes work at Universities such as Cambridge, Macquaire, Sydney, London, Beijing, Illinois, among others. The very first publication on SFL, written by him and revised by Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen, was called "An Introduction to Functional Grammar", and since it was released in 1985, its proposed conception of language and approach to Discourse Analysis is rapidly expanding across diverse human fields of knowledge.

Currently, studies applying SFL are being conducted to analyse Political discourse (Butt, Lukin and Matthiessen, 2004), Media discourse (White 2004), History discourse (Martin and Wodak 2003), among other related fields, revealing how the grammatical construal of "reality" aids the fulfillment of the author's goal, and, on occasions, even serves a covered agenda. The theory provides the tools to argüe how there is no such thing as an objective text.

"It is not that language can be used ideologically', it is that the very use of language is ideológica! This is because the use of language necessitates choices between different modes of meaning" (Hasan, 1996: 34). Applied SFL brings to light in a scientific and statistical manner the way in which authors' supposedly objective or alleged factual portrayal of reality is actually charged with their visión, subconscious assumptions, culture, world visión and subjectivity in general, through grammatical choices and how all this is structured at the service of their goals.

Lawyers may not be interested in uncovering ideological positions encoded in text, but rather, in how the opposing party uses grammar to construe their visión of a given situation in a manner that it fits into a certain legal definition or that it falls within the scope of a certain provisión they argüe should apply. Becoming aware of such tactics would constitute an advantage to lawyers when it comes to finding any weak argumentation that would otherwise be overlooked. No narrative ñor argumentative aspects of legal memoranda escape the potential undermining they may be subjected to when performing an SFL analysis on them.

Analysing texts with SFL enables readers to:

1) Become closer to the true event or series of events, as described in their "raw" terms -that is to say, with the least possible grammatical manipulation;

2) Identify contending parties' tactics in their use of language to fulfil their underlying goals; become aware of any hidden goals; become aware of our own legal texts' flaws or weak points which may be otherwise identified by the opposite partyi

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3) Trace logical relations between events and ideas in text, of which we often lose track in lengthy memoranda, and check whether said logical relations are accurate when tallied with the events described, or whether they have become mistakable or misleading.

In view of all this, if SFL studies were conducted on a good sample of legal memoranda -as is currently being done with political, historical and media texts-, the results could be used to the advantage of all legal practitioners, and serve the actual achievement of Justice through the practice of Law.

2. The theory explained

Upon the happening of an event, there are múltiple ways of structuring it into a clause and subsequently into a text to construe it. The choice of how to reconstruct that event in terms of grammar will be determined by múltiple contextual factors: who we are addressing it to, why we want to address it to this person, what we seek to do with that information, what reaction we intend to cause to our addressee or what action we want them to take, what background information we know, what emphasis we want to put on one aspect of the event or another, how we perceive the event itself due to psychological, emotional and cultural biases, among other countless factors.

Most of these choices take place subconsciously, without us noticing it. This is because "... most language users have not been educated to identify ideology in text, but rather to read [and produce] texts as natural, inevitable representations of reality (Eggins, 2004: ll). Knowing SFL makes us aware of these choices and how we could change them to better align them to their purposes.

The power of language, usually underestimated, is as strong as to lead addressees to taking action that they would deem unthinkable.. If the purpose of legal memoranda is to "...persuade the audience—i.e., the judge or judges who will be deciding the casé' (Lacovara, 2008: 282), defending one vision's of the facts is crucial, and grammar is key to define our audience's percepción of events. "...Grammar has a particular power, because it lies beneath the threshold of consciousness. Whereas words — such as "terrorism" — have been consciously debated and attended to... discourses has been much more consequential, but much less analysed or reñected on. It is this view of grammar — of grammar as a covert opera tion — which we bring to bear in this article on the consequences offorms of discourse for the construction of reality..." (Butt, Lukin and Matthiessen, 2004: 270).

This is so to the extent that linguistic construction of reality has been proven to play a key role in the justification of genocidal acts during the Second World War, as resulted from the work of philologist Klemperer, "...who kept a careful account of the deep habituation ofNazi thinking through the automatization of their linguistic formulations (Klemperer 2001)' (Butt, Lukin and Matthiessen, 2004: 28). Judges, juries, arbitrators or whomever the legal texts may be addressed to, do not escape the impact produced by grammatically well-crafted texts.

3. Analysing grammar with sfl: the three strands of meaning structured into clause

The theory poses that every clause realizes three types of meaning simultaneously: "ideational", "interpersonal" and "textual". "In...one clause... we are actually making three types of meaning simultaneously. We are able to do so because there are three kinds of simultaneous grammatical structures working in any English clause" (Eggins, 2004: 120). This threefold unraveling of meanings happens first at the clause level, and then at text level. It is when we analyse the three meanings at...

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