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  • The Diacritics 1:11 pm on December 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , english teachers, , , , , yale law school   

    Speaking with precision 

    (posted by John)

    My first semester of law school is drawing to a close, so I thought I would write about something I heard on my very first day. I’ve been mulling it over since then, partially because at first blush it runs so against my beliefs about prescriptivism and the ‘rightness’ of one person’s language over another’s. Professor John Langbein finished his riveting orientation talk on the history of law schools in America with a lament about the debasement of the English language my generation is committing. My immediate reaction, as you might guess, was a bit of haughty “This old fogey just doesn’t get it. Prescriptivism is dumb!”

    But on at least some level, he was right. Professor Langbein’s point was not that language shouldn’t change because change is bad. His point was that it’s easy to lose some of the aspects of language most valuable—especially to someone trying to become a lawyer. To me his most potent example was the loss of precision in language, which he blamed on the overlarge number of outlets for spewing our thoughts to others. Cell phone, text, facebook, twitter—you catch the drift I’m sure. It seems every major newspaper has a bi-monthly requirement for an editorial talking about the over-share phenomenon of Facebook status and twitter updates.

    Langbein wasn’t quite talking about this, though. Think about a recent conversation you’ve had, in which you related the contents of an interaction with another person. Did it run something along the lines of “I was like . . .Then he was like . . . Then I was just like whatever and left.” It may not have, but if you do some good ol’ eavesdropping on the street you’re sure to hear something like it. (Or if you’re lucky you might get “And I was all . . . Then she was all . . . Then I was all . . . .” ). This is one of the things (<– there’s another one of them) that dismayed Professor Langbein. “Is that really what you were like?” He asked us. He gave other examples, too. Overusing “thing” was one of them. Another was prefacing a point we haven’t fully thought out and can’t very well express with “You know, uh, . . . ,” and then proceeding on our muddled way. Another was compensating for a poorly-thought-out sentence by ending it with an “. . . or whatever.”

    We can all get our point across using imprecise language, and the linguist in me recoils at the thought of saying it’s actually ‘wrong’ to do so. But you can be sure that being imprecise is the one of the quickest routes to becoming an inept law student (not to mention a bad lawyer).

    So I’ll cede the point: it is worthwhile to attempt to be precise in language. If we don’t use linguistic vagaries like “or whatever” and if we avoid saying “thing” whenever the right word doesn’t immediately come to mind, it forces us to organize our thoughts more clearly. Using precise language makes us think more precisely. I tried spending a day saying precisely what I meant every time I spoke. It was exceedingly difficult, but it seemed helpful in terms of my mental organization.

    Based on our knowledge of how language allows us to think complex thoughts in the first place, it makes sense that being more precise in our speech would make us more precise in our thinking. I wrote a post a while back looking at some of Liz Spelke’s experiments that suggest language lets otherwise distinct, insulated modules of intelligence interact, thereby making us ‘smart’ compared to other species. One experiment I didn’t discuss there shows that language allows us to grasp the concept of “sets of individuals.” Babies and monkeys can distinguish “individuals” and they can distinguish “sets,” and when the set is less than four items large, they recognize that adding or subtracting an individual changes the size of the set. But when the set is larger than four, they cannot combine the representations of ‘set’ and ‘individual’ to understand that it is a “set of individuals” such that adding or subtracting one changes the quantity. Only once we have language is this possible.

    There are also sad but interesting cases of so-called ‘feral children‘ who have been deprived of exposure to language from a very young age.  These people never fully learn a language. They also are unable to perform tasks indicative of ‘higher’ human intelligence—for example distinguishing which of two massed quantities is larger.  According to still more research by Spelke and others, children without language and other animals like monkeys can distinguish between larger and smaller quantities at a ratio of about 2:1. If the quantitates get much closer in number, it becomes difficult for them to guess correctly. Humans with language can do this at a considerably better rate.

    Finally, the emergence of language, some have argued, is associated with a cultural explosion of sorts; more complex tools, recursive patterns on bits of pottery, even materials that look like they could be used to go fishing. The idea is that language allowed us to do the ‘higher thought’ necessary to develop culture.

    All of this evidence suggests that we are able to think complex, highly structured thoughts in large part because we have language. It also suggests I should take Professor Langbein’s advice: you know, try not to be like, “Let’s speak more clearly or whatever.”

    • John Cowan 3:47 pm on December 19, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Your first judgement on Langbein was right. I was all/like is a perfectly sensible quotative form, and not the least bit vague or ambiguous. Taking it literally is a ludicrous rhetorical strategy suitable only for bonking a captive audience on the head, like complaining about It was colder than hell because Hell is traditionally a place of fire. Does he criticize people for using the vague word said when so many other “more precise” terms such as shouted, hissed, shrieked, muttered, babbled, grunted, ejaculated, or bloviated are available? I suspect not.

      And I doubt he would have a word to say to anyone who used such older hedges as as it were, in a sense, in a manner of speaking, if you will and so on, though they too are used to mark “a point we haven’t fully thought out and can’t very well express”. Human beings are not expected to formulate all their thoughts in advance and spew them out in perfectly formed standard prose — unless they are giving speeches, and even then, the speech will not sound natural if they do.

      No, let Langbein stick to law or learn the facts about what he’s talking about.

    • Phil 12:29 am on December 23, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      What your professor is really bemoaning is the demise of a world where the uneducated working classes were denied access to the means with which to publish their thoughts.

      Once upon a time, the only way your ideas were ever permitted to be put on paper is if they were first rigidly screened by arch-conservative editors, and if you’d spent years at a private school, being caned for ending sentences with prepositions, and having all originality beat out of you.

      Today, the uneducated masses have Twitter, blogs, tabloids, Facebook, Tumblr, and god knows what else. The foremost triumph of democracy is the expansion of access to ‘voice’, as political scientists would term it.

      They may not be able to express themselves as clearly as we’d like, but the question arises whether that is due to their lack of ability, or our lack of flexibility. We are accustomed to seeing information presented in a certain manner, but this does not harm intelligibility, this is merely a reflection of systemic elitism.

      For instance, we undeniably understand that “she was like, no way, i wasn’t there!!1lol” equates perfectly well to “She vehemently denied her involvement”, and yet we can’t help form certain preconceptions about the authors of the two statements which make it far easier to dismiss the former out of hand. Perhaps that is what we ought to work on, not on trying to make the masses conform to our narrow class-based preconception of how intelligence correlates with register.

  • The Diacritics 6:31 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: dumbledore, harry potter, , skill, , virtue, yale law school   

    Harry Potter, law school, and the power of language 

    Posted by John

    Question: which famous academic is known by his students for having said, “Never let your skill exceed your virtue?”

    Was it (A) Albus Dumbledore or (B) Yale Law School’s former Dean Harold Koh?

    If you guessed B, you were right. Sitting at the tail end of my law school orientation, I find it amusing that about half of what we were told in our first days of law school was about how not to become a terrible person. We’ve been given lectures ranging from “How not to become a lawyer joke” to “What are the professional rules of conduct for lawyers?” If you were wondering, by the way, why lawyer jokes are not good ones to tell, it’s because lawyers don’t think they’re funny, and nobody else thinks they’re jokes.

    I don’t think this sort of training, jokes aside, is unique to Yale’s orientation program. And I by no means wish to say that Yale thinks most law students are or will become terrible people. Nor do I believe that’s true—both my parents are lawyers, and I think they’re swell.

    But I do think it is interesting that Dean Robert Post, quoting Koh, would feel the need to warn us about the dangers of using law for less-than-noble purposes. It indeed sounds like something out of Harry Potter. So what did he mean? And is this comparison to Harry Potter apt?

    If there’s one thing all of this talk has taught me thus far, it’s that the power of law is at its core the power of language. Learning law, as Professor Heather Gerken told us, is itself learning a new language. To master the law’s deep power, then, is the same task as mastering the language of law. Once we immerse ourselves in and develop control over this new language, the hope is that we can shape it, direct it, and, indeed, wield it like a tangible instrument. Dean Post and others spoke as if we could ply the law as a weapon precisely because that’s what we are trying to learn how to do.

    In a lot of ways, it’s exactly what Harry and company were doing at Hogwarts. They were, themselves, learning a language of great and fundamental power—magic! The point of their education was to learn how responsibly to craft it, wrangle it, and direct it to some end. That idea of learning to wield the power of their language responsibly is the one Dean Post was trying to convey to us. While we might never be able to drop someone dead with two little words, the power of law’s language is real, and thus is real the weight of responsibility in utilizing it.

    Clearly, this is one of the more romantic ways we’ve yet been taught to think about law. That’s probably because it’s more exciting to not-quite-1Ls than telling us about the thousands of pages of case law we’ll soon be reading. But it seems to me that there’s at least some truth behind it. We all know the great power behind arguments made using the language of law (think, say, Brown v. Board of Education), even if we also recognize the profession’s shortcomings (e.g., the potential monotony of law school).

    Back to the Harry Potter analogy, though, there are other ways in which it can be extended. The concept of adversaries in the courtroom is the lawyer’s version of a wizarding duel: Each opponent is attempting to craft arguments—spells—that will outflank the other’s defenses. The really good wizards, like the really good lawyers, will not just look at the rules as they have been understood and applied before. They will use their mastery of the language to come up with creative new ways to accomplish their goals.

    As both a former linguist(-in-training) and a Harry Potter lover, I like this way of thinking about law as a sort of language, comparable in some ways to languages like HP’s magic. Maybe someday, if I can figure it out, I’ll write a post on which subjects would count as, say, the language’s origin (Constitutional Law?), syntax (maybe Procedure?), semantics, and everything else. But until then, does anyone know of a spell that will help me get my torts reading done?

    • The Diacritics 6:39 pm on September 10, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Awesome! I wonder, too, how much “the law” is really just the manipulation of language in general — not just “the language of the law,” but general “language”… and how lawyers are really just surgical linguists, exacting what they need from our language for their own ends?

    • Captain Person (@captainperson) 7:37 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Have you read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians? The author expands on the “hey, what if Hogwarts was more like a law school” idea a bit there.

      • The Diacritics 10:55 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        I have not! Looks like a cool book, though. Should’ve done my due diligence better!

    • Jeyna Grace 8:12 am on September 11, 2011 Permalink | Reply


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