Friday, 6 December 2013

Legal language: 'it's just semantics'

I read this utterly depressing article about the legal problems of rape cases in India. (Note that I'm not passing judgement on any particular country being better or worse than any other in this regard - I'm not a lawyer. But this is in the news, and it made me think.) It describes, among other things, the fact that some sexual assault crimes are described using very out-dated terms: 
A non-penetrative sexual act is still described as "outraging the modesty of a woman" - a relic of a penal code written by the British in 1860.
"Because of the language, it has often led to judgments where courts have held that a woman did not have 'modesty' which could be outraged," says law professor, Mrinal Satish.
"Such judgments are few and far between nowadays, but the continuance of the archaic language is itself problematic."
Language has become very important here: an old-fashioned term is allowing defendants to get away with serious crimes. Sometimes, I think that as long as people agree on what a word means, that's what it means, and we ought not to get hung up on it. But here it's having a serious effect on real life and has consequences. If ever there was one, this is an argument for prescribing language. (I've written about other instances before.)

It reminded me of this LanguageLog post from last month. In it, they discussed a claim made in The Economist:
In Urdu there is no word for rape. The closest direct translation is "looting my honour". 
LanguageLog and its commenters swiftly demolished this 'no word for X' claim, just as they have done many times before. It's complicated, but if everyone knows and agrees that a particular word means rape, then there is a word for rape. Take English, for instance. The word comes from the Latin word rapere, or 'seize', 'carry off', etc. But no trial is going to turn on whether an accused rapist actually carried their victim off somewhere - all speakers of English agree that the word means something very different from its original 'literal' meaning (and it already had the 'modern' meaning in Latin, by the way). From what the knowledgeable commenters on LanguageLog say, the situation in Urdu is similar:
The legal term is "zina bi'l-jabr" (aggravated fornication), and everyone who speaks Urdu knows what it means. 
The difference in (some parts of) India seems to be that some judges accept the specious 'literal meaning' argument. People who think that saying 'it's just semantics' implies that the question is unimportant are wrong. 

1 comment:

  1. Legislators have historically been reluctant to specify the details of sexual offences. Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were both convicted of "gross indency between two males" (not further specified in the law). Some US states had laws against "lewdness and lascivious behavior" (not further defined).