Threats: A Pragmalinguistic Approach to the Analysis of a Speech Crime




Susan Berk-Seligson

Of Peter Tiersma’s numerous contributions to the field of Language and the Law, his work in the area of pragmatics, and speech act theory in particular, is especially important. By demonstrating to legal practitioners that speech acts such as orders, requests, and threats can be made both directly and indirectly, and that carrying out these verbal acts indirectly can entail the use of such ambiguous language that the illocutionary force of the act can later be plausibly denied, Tiersma has shown the non-linguist that the interpretation of an indirect speech act often turns on the social power of the hearer. His work with Solan in Speaking of Crime (2005) has demonstrated that appellate courts resolve ambiguity in the interpretation of speech acts in favor of authorities like the police rather than in favor of defendants. This essay focuses on one speech act: threats.

Threats are not merely speech acts; they can be language crimes. In their essay on threats, Solan and Tiersma (2005: chapter 10) show that threats share features with other speech acts, such as warnings and predictions. However, contextual factors accompanying a speech act can eliminate much of the ambiguity in it, and the recipients of a threat will clearly understand its illocutionary force.

It is not easy to gather direct evidence of a threat. The most convincing evidence would be an audio recording of an oral threat or a written form of communication making such a threat. But this kind of evidence is often not available. Juries and judges often have nothing more to go on than the report of a threat by alleged victims or other witnesses.

I conducted a study of threats commonly made by members of gangs and drug cartels based in Central America. In this part of the world, threats are being made on a daily basis, and the recipients of those threats talk about them, sometimes quoting the source of the threat, at other times using indirect speech. Between 2011 and 2013, 465 community “stakeholders” (school teachers, police officers, community leaders, clergy, members of municipal crime prevention councils) were interviewed in Guatemala (N = 146) and El Salvador (N = 319).1 Many reported that they, their family members, or neighbors had been targets of threats, mainly of extortion, but also of murder. The police interviewed reported that threats of extortion—particularly of merchants—were among their most common crimes. Interestingly, many of these threats were made by gang members using cell phones from prison cells. Because some police are in league with the gangs, many people in El Salvador and Guatemala do not trust the police and are afraid to report gang crimes.

What follows below are two narratives involving threats. Both were communicated in Spanish (translated here by the author) by the former president of a Salvadoran community development association (ADESCO); she is a woman in her late forties. The first narrative is in response to the interviewer’s question as to how she feels about the police and whether she is afraid or mistrustful of them.

Excerpt 1

[Ex-president, ADESCO: Fear and mistrust, both things, both of them.]

[Interviewer: Why?]

[Ex-president, ADESCO: Because look, I’m going to explain something to you, but I’m going to explain it, I’m going to talk about last year. Umm, I, I was being extorted badly; they even said that they were going to kill me on the street and all that, when the police inspector of (name of municipality) suddenly shows up. I told him certain things and afterwards, they call me again and they tell me that I had talked to these people. So you tell me what to think, ‘cause they’re the same people, the same people. I’m, I am, I’m mistrustful. Fear I don’t have because I’m a daughter of God and I know that He, if He allows it, something bad will happen to me, and if He doesn’t permit it, nothing is going to happen to me. As I said to those individuals, “If you people,” he told me that he knew where I lived, that he knew where I was in the habit of walking. “Good God, you already know that; but I am a daughter of a powerful king, of a living God, not of a dead God, and if you are my God then you will, will kill me, and if he allows it, and if he doesn’t allow it you aren’t going to do anything to me because God won’t give you permission to,” I said, and, and, that is, from that moment on I have been mistrustful of, let’s say, the police. So, and I don’t have any desire to meet with them again because of what happened, what happened to me, a leader, not let’s say to a poor person. And I’ve always been trust-, very certain about God, about God, despite the fact that we have our weaknesses, weaknesses, but I, that’s why I don’t trust the police any more.]

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