Speech or Silence: Within and Beyond Language and Law


Speech or Silence


Meizhen Liao

Reading Peter Tiersma’s “The Language of Silence” (1995) and also his “Nonverbal Communication and the Freedom of ‘Speech’ ” (1993) is a refreshing, intellectual, and enlightening journey. It is as if you revisit your hometown or your home village after having left it many years ago when you were young: you find the old, intimate, and time-honored willow trees still standing on the bank of the old familiar ponds and the old, mystic, and mossy Buddhist temple, but you are also enthralled by the new exotic villas you would never expect to see, the broad lighted avenues instead of those old narrow and shabby lanes, and the blue clear and straight river running by the village, which used to be muddy and rampant with wild plants. The things familiar to me in Tiersma’s papers are the linguistic theories and models he adopted, which are tools I often use in my professional work. The unexpected changes are his creative and innovative application of the models and theories to the analysis and solution of real, important, even pressing controversial legal problems. Tiersma’s paper strikes me as a masterful synthesis of linguistics and law, an excellent example of interdisciplinary study.

We can identify at least two main approaches to language and law research. The first approaches legal language from the perspective of the unique or exotic features of the language used in the legal context focusing on the language itself and the mechanisms by which law operates through language. Normally this approach is adopted by those scholars whose careers are in linguistics. The second approach also deals with legal issues from a linguistic perspective, as law is inseparable from the language with which it is constituted. This approach, however, is adopted largely by those trained as jurists and those with training in both jurisprudence and linguistics, and engages both the areas of linguistics and law in a significant way.

Tiersma’s research is a perfect example of what can happen when the two approaches are combined. He makes full use of his linguistic knowledge in the service of understanding and critiquing law, providing new insights into legal problems that challenge judges, legislators, and legal scholars. In doing so, he extends the application of linguistic theories and models well beyond the ordinary boundaries of the discipline of linguistics. Hence, his work has implications for both the study of language and the study of law and are of interest to both fields and beyond.

For Tiersma is not only an expert in the grammar of sounds—his original field of study was phonetics—but also an artist of the grammar of silence. He has made an exhaustive study of the various ways in which people communicate through their silence, adding his own significant observations to those made in previous studies on silence or nonverbal communication.