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Review of  Linguistics in Pursuit of Justice

Reviewer: Martin R. Gitterman
Book Title: Linguistics in Pursuit of Justice
Book Author: John Baugh
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 32.2440

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The opening sentence of the Preface is “This book is fundamentally about fairness” (p. xiii). The road to fairness in society, Baugh emphasizes, requires an understanding of the inseparable link between societal phenomena and linguistics. William Labov’s work was an inspirational force, playing no small role for Baugh in writing this book. Labov’s frequently cited article, “The Logic of Nonstandard English,” is highlighted as being particularly influential. Readers of “Linguistics in Pursuit of Justice,” Baugh hopes, will not be passive consumers of the matters discussed therein, but will become actively engaged in analyzing the topics discussed. Without serious reflection on the part of the readers “…..this enterprise would be doomed from the outset” (p. xx).

The volume contains 11 chapters encompassing a wide range of topics.

Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) lays the groundwork for the subsequent chapters. Baugh states that the “book explores various ways in which alternative forms of linguistic experimentation and evaluation could advance human equality throughout the world” (p. 1). He refers to aspects of urban decay and injustice, many of which he witnessed during his stay in North Philly in the 1970s. Issues alluded to include drug addiction, police brutality, abandoned housing. and discrimination. Baugh’s time in North Philly, which began prior to his study of linguistics, nevertheless made him acutely aware of linguistic diversity and of the negative attitudes some hold to particular language varieties. The chapter provides a brief preview of the chapters to follow.

Chapter 2 (“Linguistics, Life, and Death”) provides an overview of the scope of forensic linguistics by examining three actual murder cases, the adjudication of each being logically dependent on linguistic analyses. Roger Shuy was an expert witness in one of the cases and John Baugh was an expert witness in the other two. Linguistic analyses alluded to in the chapter include the evaluation of conversations as well as more narrowly focused phonetic analyses. The primary objective of the chapter is to inform readers not only of the relevance of linguistic evaluation in the adjudication of cases, but of the need to employ such evaluations as a means of achieving true justice.

Chapter 3 (“Linguistics, Injustice, and Inequality”) notes that the concept of justice and the measures that facilitate reaching this desirable outcome include, but extend well beyond, the study of forensic linguistics. Language can be used in a constructive manner, thus fostering justice, or it can be used detrimentally, thus leading to injustice. The focus of the chapter is aimed at illustrating how “…language usage intersects with (in)justice and the quest for equality among diverse people throughout the world” (p. 44). Among the issues addressed are historical speeches and educational policy. The concept of “linguistic profiling,” a form of discrimination rooted in negative attitudes toward particular patterns of speech, is introduced. The achievement of justice and equality is recognized as paramount.

Chapter 4 (“Some Linguistic and Legal Consequences of Slavery in the United States”) extols the exemplary work of William Labov in sociolinguistics. The chapter addresses the issue of terminology, noting that terms like Negroes and Colored People, once appropriate, are now considered disrespectful. The term Black, at one time considered objectionable, is now acceptable. It is noted that one should recognize the Black population as being very diverse. Four distinct categories are delineated, along with names of well-known individuals who would fit into one or more of the four categories proposed. This increased sociological awareness is discussed in the context of achieving a more just society.

In Chapter 5 (“Linguistic Profiling”) the concepts of linguistic profiling and racial profiling are explained, with attention drawn to the fact that there is some overlap between them. Linguistic profiling is not necessarily based on racial factors, although there are undeniably occasions where it is. Linguistic profiling is illustrated with reference to housing discrimination. More specifically, some documented cases involve minority individuals calling to rent an apartment only to be told the apartment was not available. White callers, in marked contrast, were told the same apartment was available. These African Americans and Latinx apartment seekers were truly victims of a societal injustice. Beyond matters of housing, linguistic discrimination is discussed in both educational and employment settings. The chapter also touches on the body of research examining attitudes held to particular dialects of a language, as well as to other languages.

Chapter 6 (“Earwitness Testimony and Unbiased Formulation of Auditory Lineups”) aims to elucidate the potential role of earwitness testimony in promoting justice. Noting that eyewitness testimony is a much more familiar practice, the chapter makes clear that testimony based on what a witness has heard, rather than what has been seen, can play an important role in the judicial process. One must recognize that earwitness testimony is not always accurate, which is also true of eyewitness testimony. Subsequent to a discussion of relevant research on hearing and its reliability, Baugh asserts that efforts must be made “… increase-if not ensure-the reliability of any attempts to accurately identify a person based exclusively upon hearing that person speak” (p. 95). Auditory lineups are argued to have the potential to bring about increased reliability.

Chapter 7 (“Dialect Identification and Discrimination in the United States”) presents socioeconomic statistics demonstrating differences across racial lines. Regarding median family income, for example, reported income is markedly lower in Black families than in White families in the United States. The chapter focuses on the ability to identify/distinguish dialects. Four experiments treating the topic are outlined in some detail. The findings suggest that typical listeners are able to differentiate dialects and are quite adept at linking a particular dialect with an ethnic group. Interestingly, the findings also suggest that differentiating dialects is possible even when hearing as little as a single word. Experimental work on the role of particular acoustic cues in dialect differentiation is also described. It is imperative, in the interest of justice, that the ability to distinguish and identify dialects not be used to discriminate against any group.

In Chapter 8 (“Formulating Discrimination: Dimensions of a Historical Hardship Index”) an attempt is made to delve systematically beyond the role of purely linguistic factors in explaining injustice in society. This more inclusive framework within which to examine injustice is presented in the form of a testing instrument (Figure 8.1, “Historical Hardship Index Self-Test,” p. 128) designed so that individuals can report where they fall on a scale for each of the criteria included in the Index. Each individual who completes the Index arrives at a total score, with each total score indicative of a relative need for help from society. The Index can and should be revised depending, for example, on the country in which it is being utilized.

Chapter 9 (“Linguistic Harassment”) aims to provide a clear understanding of the term linguistic harassment. The process of clarifying the scope and meaning of the term necessitates reference to several other terms (e.g., sexual harassment, insults, linguistic bullying). The complexity of this definitional focus is made clear in a detailed discussion supported by visual aids (in particular, Figure 9.1, “An Integrated Model of Different Types of Linguistic Harassment,” p. 138). Reference to a real-life case is outlined. Those who are subjected to linguistic harassment are advised to “seek relief,” and some suggestions for doing so are provided.

Chapter 10 (“Linguistic Contributions to the Advancement of Justice”), as Baugh notes, “….. is devoted to the work of many people who have contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the intersection of linguistics and the pursuit of justice” (p. 151). The chapter, which is not limited to the contributions of current researchers, provides a broad historical perspective. Research methods are highlighted and explained across a range of sub-disciplines of language. Among the numerous issues addressed is the role of linguists in promoting justice for students in schools where diverse dialects and first languages are evident.

Chapter 11 (“Shall We Overcome?”} reiterates the meaning of justice as used in the current volume. Its scope, as made clear throughout the book, is extremely broad, extending well beyond its application in legal matters. The link between linguistics and justice is illustrated under headings specifying different stages evident in the search for justice (e.g., obtaining justice, achieving justice, sustaining justice}. Rhetorical analyses of language used by key historical figures (e.g., Susan B. Anthony, Thurgood Marshall, Nelson Mandela) in their pursuit of justice are included. Discourse analysis plays a core role in the chapter. The culminating stage in the pursuit of justice is ideally justice that is sustained. Readers of the book are called upon to be active supporters of that pursuit.


This volume presents an outstanding interdisciplinary explanation of justice, illustrating the ways in which linguistics is an integral part of the study of justice. Justice, defined here very broadly, adds meaningfully to the breadth of the book. Baugh treats the notion of justice from a variety of perspectives, as indicated in the chapter summaries above, and succeeds in clarifying the extent to which an understanding of linguistics, and its applications, heightens one’s understanding of justice. The supporting material provided throughout the book, including extensive references to relevant literature, adds immeasurably to the depth of the book. The result is a book which is bound to be well received by its readers. Those who read the book will learn much about allied social sciences and linguistics, about justice and injustice, about the connection between allied social sciences and linguistics, and, of primary importance, how a knowledge of linguistics enables one to gain greater insight into the role of linguistics in bringing about sustained justice and in rejecting injustice. Readers are likely to engage in additional thought about the issues covered in the book after reading it. That was one of Baugh’s stated objectives in writing the book and, unquestionably, “Linguistics in Pursuit of Justice” achieves its aim.

The range of topics discussed and the logical sequencing of material in the presentation of each issue should enable readers to gain a fundamental understanding of the inseparable nature of linguistics and justice. In fact, in some cases, readers may be able to relate issues discussed to their own lives. Critically, an awareness of the topics covered in the book increases the likelihood that readers will be able to identify cases of injustice they may encounter. An awareness of linguistic profiling, for example, as explained in the book, can motivate individuals to attempt to reduce its occurrence along with its concomitant harmful effects. Related to this point, Baugh correctly asserts, “It is in the interest of the potential for greater social harmony throughout humanity that we may all ultimately benefit from more people who are accepting of others whose speech is substantially different from their own” (p. 81). The logical manner in which linguistic profiling is presented in the book is true of the other issues chosen for inclusion as well. That is undeniably a major commendable feature of this volume.

“Linguistics in Pursuit of Justice” will appeal to a very large and diverse readership. That audience includes students of related social sciences (e.g., sociology) who are interested in learning about the role of linguistics in those disciplines, students of linguistics who are interested in learning about the overlapping disciplines of linguistics and social science, and, of particular importance, all individuals with aspirations of having a society where justice prevails. Fortunately, no prior formal education in an academic discipline is required to understand the book, yet, at the same time, the book is substantive enough to be of interest to those readers with extensive formal education in a related academic discipline.

The volume is replete with messages of a utilitarian nature. The content has a very practical dimension. In fact, all the information presented in the book can be subsumed, in some measure, under this heading. The importance of implementing programs in schools that meet the needs of a linguistically diverse student body is addressed. The inclusion of quotations from leading historical figures attempting to promote justice demonstrates that language is a powerful tool. As Baugh correctly notes, words have played a critical role historically in promoting justice. Overall, it can be said that the book, of interest academically, also enlightens readers about ways in which they can be active in promoting justice (e.g., by respecting linguistic diversity, by supporting educational programs that meet the needs of all students, or by expressing one’s ideas on promoting justice when one sees an injustice).

Additional commendable features of the book merit mention. The numerous references, including, for example, scholars dating back to Boas and Sapir, add greatly to a fuller understanding of the topic. Interestingly, as noted by Baugh, some scholars (e.g., Boas, Sapir) may not have written specifically about language as it relates to justice, but still contributed indirectly to an understanding of the topic. Among those who did contribute directly, the inclusion of Labov, along with recognition of his contribution to the field, is noteworthy. The inclusion of the results of experimental work is also to be commended (see, in particular, the detailed description of four experiments in Chapter 7). Additionally, the Tables and Figures throughout the book are very helpful.

If this excellent book is revised at some point, perhaps for a second edition, I would propose a few revisions. Although this is not a textbook, it might be useful, nevertheless, to include some questions, issues to think about, or suggestions for further reading. This would provide interested readers with some direction for following up on issues addressed in the volume. The fact that the book is not a textbook does not necessarily preclude the addition of such exercises. While the Tables and Figures in the book are one of its many strengths (as indicated above), in Figure 8.1 (p. 128) it would be helpful to make the headings on the scales running horizontally (e.g., voluntary immigrant, involuntary immigrant, Native American) in bolder print, thus making them easier to read. There is a typo on p. 159 where “difficulty” appears (“… would have been extremely difficulty to disentangle……”) rather than the intended “difficult.”

In sum, this is an outstanding book. It is well written, substantive, thought-provoking and of practical value.
Martin R. Gitterman is Professor Emeritus at Lehman College and The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. He served for six years as Chair of the Department of Speech and Theatre at Lehman College and six years as Executive Officer of the Ph.D. Program in Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences at The Graduate Center. His areas of specialization include second language acquisition, bilingualism, applied linguistics and neurolinguistics. He is currently Ombuds Officer at The Graduate Center.

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ISBN-13: 9781316607312
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