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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton January 21, 2016

Negotiating language status in multilingual jurisdictions: Rhetoric and reality

Janny HC Leung
From the journal Semiotica


About a quarter of legal jurisdictions in the world operate in more than one language. Despite this, language policies governing the functioning of law in such jurisdictions, other than in the European Union, rarely receive much attention in research. Given, however, that the policy contrast between legal monolingualism and multilingualism is often a matter of strategic response to the rising or declining power of one or more particular language communities, the conferring of legal authority on some language(s) but not others calls for analysis. Advocacy and justification surrounding potential or actual change of legal language, for example, consists of competing rhetorics advanced by politicians, legal professionals, and campaign groups, and to this extent politics permeates both the promotion and presentation of legal multilingualism, despite reluctance among legal policy makers to engage directly with this aspect of the process. This article situates legal multilingualism within a wider understanding of multilingualism and language policy. It first surveys status labels assigned to languages in multilingual jurisdictions. It then compares, across jurisdictions, rhetorical strategies deployed in promoting and opposing specific proposals about language status, in both official and public discourses, and analyses contradictions and dilemmas embedded in them. The argument extends [Rhetoric as jurisprudence: An introduction to the politics of legal language. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 4(1). 88–122] observation that legal discourse is pre-eminently a discourse of power. But if use of legal language is political, it is suggested, then the processes of negotiation which establish a language for such use are even more so.

Funding statement: Funding: This research (code HKU 747812H) has been generously supported by the RGC General Research Fund.


The author would also like to thank Professor Alan Durant, Professor Malcolm Coulthard, Professor Christopher Hutton, and Dr. Frederick Blumberg for their constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Part of this paper has been presented in a Regional Conference of the International Association of Forensic Linguistics (Kuala Lumpur, 2012).


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Published Online: 2016-1-21
Published in Print: 2016-3-1

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