Scarlet Letter or Badge of Honour? Semantic Interpretation in Changing Contexts of Culture


Scarlet Letter or Badge of Honour? Semantic Interpretation in Changing Contexts of Culture

Krzysztof Kredens

On receiving the offer to write for this volume, I reflected on the extent to which Peter Tiersma’s work has shaped my thinking about language and law, and concluded I owe him both an interest in, and an understanding of, the ways meaning gets interpreted in legal contexts. He has written extensively about semantic issues in product warning labels, statutory regulations, and perjury cases. The premise of his 1987 paper, “The Language of Defamation,” is that defamatory statements, unlike neutral reports and statements of opinion, involve the speaker performing the illocutionary act of accusing: “[w]‌hile an accusation attributes responsibility for an act, a report simply states that the act has occurred” (1987: 306). Tiersma is here less interested in the low-level semantic interpretation often required to decide whether the linguistic substance under scrutiny accuses or merely reports. This chapter aims to expand on his ideas; I discuss the implications of changing cultural norms for semantic interpretation in defamation cases.

I begin with a necessary platitude: the social, political, and technological advances of the last two or three decades have changed the way in which a lot of people live their lives. New technology in particular has been revolutionizing the ways individuals interact with each other, thus redefining social norms. To describe the resulting social dynamic, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the term “liquid modernity,” referring to “forms of modern life [which] may differ in quite a few respects” but are united by “their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change” (2012: viii). There is no doubt that this change is reflected in language at its various levels. An interesting example is the word “geek,” which seems to have undergone semantic amelioration; not long ago it referred predominantly to a socially inept computer specialist, but is now increasingly used to describe “a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject,”1 most commonly in the field of information technology. This semantic change arguably reflects the fact that a lot of geeks have been contributing to the technological revolution of recent years and have achieved considerable financial success (and thus social respect) as a result.

The problem of understanding socially driven semantic change takes on an urgency in defamation cases, where it can be key in the resolution of the linguistic problem in question. In the early 1990s, post-communist Poland was experiencing a political transformation from a centrally planned to a market economy. The state was no longer hostile to the pursuit of personal wealth. On the contrary, new legislation encouraged private entrepreneurship, which was once viewed with suspicion by the majority working in state-owned companies, but later began to be associated with industriousness and financial independence. Against this backdrop, a fledgling entrepreneur spoke of the business dealings of the country’s then-richest person as “the greatest monkey business of the Third Republic.” A lengthy defamation suit followed in which the linguists testifying about the meaning and defamatory potential of “monkey business” (Polish przekręt) disagreed in their interpretations, with one contending that in certain contexts, “monkey business” could have positive connotations. This reading seemed to equate przekręt with a kind of resourcefulness and ingenuity in circumventing the law, activity that, if not ostensibly encouraged, would arguably be met with at least tacit appreciation in the unfamiliar context of the country’s unfettered free-market economy. This case, which ended favourably for the plaintiff, illustrates how telling the difference between the acts of accusing and reporting can prove problematic because of the semantic changes in the context of culture.

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