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  • Introduction
  • Benjamin Shaer

1. Introduction

I begin this introduction with an introduction. This is in part because the title of this thematic issue, "Temporal and modal dimensions of legal discourses", does not really give away much, either about the choice of topics—time, after all, being a dimension of everything and modal notions being ubiquitous in reasoning, communication, and the study of these—or about the choice to investigate "legal discourses" rather than, say, "law", or "laws", or "legal texts", or even "legal discourse". But it is also in part because the topic of this issue, a rich one at the intersection between linguistics and legal studies, is one still rarefied enough to require some special attention. These remarks are thus intended to provide some of this, giving notice of the substantial roles that temporal and modal expressions play in the law and setting out the fairly complex web of goals that have informed this issue, which I shall be describing in more detail in what follows.

The chief goal of this issue, then, is this: to demonstrate that expressions of time and modality are fundamental to legal discourses and legal interpretation; and that the investigation of these expressions can be fruitful for linguists and lawyers alike. This is because such investigation can assist in elucidating the relevant aspects of the form, meaning, and use of these expressions as part of both the study and the practice of law, and also in broadening the scope of the linguistic study of legal language, including the introduction of a larger set of linguistic tools to this study.

The issue has a secondary but still important goal, which is to foster productive interaction between linguistic and legal research and to explore how linguistics and law can best interact. This involves, to begin with, a recognition of the need to signal, [End Page 1] particularly to those interested in pursuing such an interaction, that linguistics and law represent two rather different bodies of knowledge. Thus, for example, as Shuy (2012:449) points out, when linguists act as experts in a courtroom setting, "it is prudent for them to begin with the problems, assumptions, perspectives, and specialized language" of law, and thus "to begin with the lawyers where they are and not to expect lawyers to begin where linguists are". Arguably, what Shuy's remarks indicate is that linguists interested in working with this profession—and not, for example, simply mining legal texts for linguistic data—must have a real engagement with the profession and with the law more generally. These remarks also indicate that the law is not merely a distinct body of knowledge that lawyers have, but a distinct legal "culture"—that is, "a distinct way of understanding and perceiving meaning in the events of our political and social life" (Kahn 1999:1).1

Some reflection on these two fields reveals myriad ways in which this "cultural" difference between them manifests itself. One profound difference is related to the goals that the two fields set for themselves. This, as Kahn (1999:1) observes, can be seen in legal scholarship, where "[e]xpertise in each specialty" of the law

is expressed in the form of proposals for legal reform. The tort professor tells us about tort reform. The professor of constitutional law spends most of her time explaining how the Supreme Court should have ruled, or should rule. Even jurisprudence falls into this pattern of critique and reform. When it is not pursuing the analytic questions of legal validity, contemporary jurisprudence is telling us how judges should rule or how regulatory regimes should work.

What Kahn is clearly describing here, using terms familiar to linguists, is a preoccupation with prescription rather than description2—a preoccupation foreign to most linguists, except for those who are themselves actively engaged in access-to-justice issues,3 and for others whose work documents linguistic patterns of discrimination and other inequitable power relations and who take these patterns to point the way toward reform.

Perhaps also worth recognizing about the "culture" of law, as observed most notably by the legal theorist H.L.A. Hart, is how much its theorizing has been preoccupied by the question of what...


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