Why Spoken Words Matter A new book by a leading linguist explains how seeking justice involves the way we speak.

Linguistics in Pursuit of Justice

By John Baugh (2018, Cambridge University Press) 215 pages, including bibliography and index

Though an apt description of its contents, the title of John Baugh’s most recent book, Linguistics in Pursuit of Justice, may inadvertently mislead potential readers in two ways: (1) “justice” might make readers think only of the kind of justice that is delivered in a courtroom, and (2) “linguistics” might suggest that the book is only for linguists. It is my hope to dispel these notions for readers before they even begin the book.

With “justice” in the title, Baugh’s book inevitably, and yet unwittingly, prepares readers for a series of vignettes of linguists in the courtroom, pontificating about grammar in order, somehow, to spare the innocent from wrongful convictions or, conversely, to keep dangerous criminals off the streets. The courtroom, after all, epitomizes the legal system that modern society has established to monitor and administer ‘justice,’ narrowly understood. But Baugh’s book is, quite definitively, about much more than this. As he points out early on and underscores repeatedly throughout the book, the notion of justice that he has in mind is not narrow in this way: it “includes, but also far exceeds, legal considerations” (44). Accordingly, the book itself is not dedicated exclusively to forensic linguistics, the branch of linguistic science concerned with intersections of language and the law (17, 179).

Certainly, Baugh does cover a number of highly interesting cases where linguistics was instrumental in the courtroom in high-stakes, life-or-death criminal trials—witness, for instance, the anecdotes in the aptly titled Ch. 2, “Linguistics, Life, and Death.” But the majority of the book focuses on how linguists can advance the cause of justice outside the courtroom, in domains like promoting public awareness of linguistic profiling (Ch. 5) and linguistic harassment (Ch. 9), informing educational policies (Ch. 5), and increasing the precision with which policies like affirmative action are implemented (Ch. 4).

As Baugh points out early on and underscores repeatedly throughout the book, the notion of justice that he has in mind is not narrow in this way: it “includes, but also far exceeds, legal considerations.”

There are times in the discussion of these broader topics, though, when it is not entirely convincing that they are, in fact, entirely non-legal. All of these issues connect, albeit sometimes circuitously, to legal matters, so it can be hard to see exactly how Baugh intends his notion of justice to “exceed” the legal sphere. For instance, when discussing linguists’ efforts to promote equal educational opportunities for minority populations in the United States, Baugh recounts the story of a group of African American students in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the 1970s who were wrongfully diagnosed with abnormal linguistic development, likely due to their speaking a non-standard dialect of English. Their parents filed a class action suit against the school district (the famous “Black English Trial”), calling upon linguist Geneva Smitherman to provide her expertise in the case—and thus in the courtroom (72-4). Later, turning his attention to linguists’ efforts to expose subtle forms of linguistic discrimination and profiling, Baugh describes his own pioneering studies of the 1980-90s, in which he placed telephone calls to apartment managers in the California Bay Area, alternately using different English dialects (Standard American English, African American English, and Chicano English) during the calls. As he discovered, landlords were disproportionately more likely to deny his requests for housing when he used a non-standard English dialect as compared to when he used the standard dialect, even when this housing was in fact available (Ch. 7). Baugh names several notable housing discrimination cases (HUD v. Cox (1991), City of Chicago v. Matchmaker Real Estate Sales Center (1992), and HUD v. Ross (1994)) that have benefitted from this kind of work, showing again how linguists’ work on ostensibly non-legal issues ultimately find their most practical applications back in the courtroom. Discussions like these, taken together with chapter and section titles that explicitly reference legal considerations (cf. Ch. 4, 9.11), tend to obscure Baugh’s overall argument that “justice exceeds the law.”

It was not until the final chapter of the book that this argument finally fell into place for me. Here, Baugh recounts how, during one of his depositions, a lawyer told him that he could tell Baugh was “seeking justice, but you should never equate justice with the law” (185). And then it clicked: what Baugh seeks, and what he wants his fellow linguists to assist with, is not the implementation of the law but the procurement of justice, and, significantly, the former does not necessarily guarantee the latter because the law may not always be just. For instance, the Bantu Education Act, which racially segregated schools in order to perpetuate white supremacy, represented law in apartheid South Africa in the 1950s, but it was certainly not just. Accordingly, Baugh’s discussion emphasizes how the work of linguist Neville Alexander helped change the law by replacing the Act with a more inclusive national language policy (53-7). And when Baugh began his aforementioned research on linguistic discrimination in the housing market, there was no law expressly prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants on the basis of their speech because this kind of discrimination was entirely without precedent: as he observes, “Various legal systems around the world simply did not anticipate that telephones could be used as instruments of discrimination” (68). The absence of an explicit law against such discrimination, however, in no way made it just, which is why Baugh’s efforts were instrumental in court cases that ultimately extended the scope of existing anti-discrimination policies.

What Baugh seeks, and what he wants his fellow linguists to assist with, is not the implementation of the law but the procurement of justice, and, significantly, the former does not necessarily guarantee the latter because the law may not always be just.

With this realization, it became clear to me that “justice” for Baugh is about obtaining not what is legally right but what is morally, ethically, and humanistically right. Baugh writes:


“Fairness lies at the heart of the operational definitions distinguishing justice from injustice that guide this discussion, as well as efforts to promote and achieve equality. Others will no doubt recognize that matters pertaining to impartiality are also relevant, as well as actions toward others that are free of bias. Justice, as conceived herein, is inherently complex because it can be illusory, when—in reality—it must be concrete to actually uplift humanity.” (44)


Baugh’s underlying argument is that where this broader notion of justice (what he cleverly calls “just justice” to convey an “unqualified interpretation of justice” (184-5)) does not align with the legal notion, the linguist’s job is to advocate for changing the law. It is in this way, then, that the examples Baugh describes in connection to seemingly non-legal issues like linguistic harassment, linguistic profiling, and equality in education/housing/employment begin to have the legal dimension that comes across so strongly in his discussions.

The second potential misconception arising from the book’s title concerns its intended readership. Certainly, linguists will benefit in obvious and direct ways from Baugh’s carefully curated repository of the formal linguistic tools that he considers to be well-suited to the task of advancing justice; Ch. 10 in particular provides an excellent summary (an “analytic linguistic tool kit,” as Baugh pitches it [157]) of the tools that are presented throughout the book, including conversation and discourse analysis, speech act theory, spectrographic analysis, audience design, and quantitative sociolinguistics.

But linguists may be limited in their awareness of where these tools might be most helpful. In this regard, they need non-linguists in various fields—educators, lawyers, policy makers, historians, social workers, sociologists, anthropologists, and others—to help them (as a case in point, Baugh began some of his initial research on linguistic discrimination in the housing market at the request of representatives from a fair housing agency [67, 97]). For their part, however, non-linguists are generally unlikely to even think to seek the help of linguists; a recurring theme in the book (and, for that matter, in any Introduction to Linguistics class) is that language is “such an integral part of daily life that it can easily be taken for granted—or worse, dismissed—as inconsequential when compared with many of the other criteria that inevitably intersect with conditions pertaining to the impartial treatment of people” (xiii). Later, Baugh notes further that,


“[A] neglect or avoidance of detailed linguistic evaluation is somewhat understandable because language usage is ubiquitous, and most well-educated people—and attorneys are all well-educated by definition—frequently believe that they have a reasonably good understanding of how language works, and they therefore feel no need to seek additional expert advice.” (42)


One of the most significant contributions of Baugh’s book, then, lies in its potential to introduce readers of various professions to the kind of knowledge and expertise that linguists can provide for them.

To further reassure non-linguists, the book is a far cry from a linguistics textbook. On the whole, it is written in a very approachable and highly engaging way, with straightforward and organized explanations of the formal linguistic tools noted above. Readers will even get a sense of what sociolinguistic research really looks like in Ch. 6 and 7, which contain thorough examples of actual experimental studies—though, concomitantly, these chapters, and Ch. 7 in particular, run the greatest risk of befuddling non-linguists as they contain the most in terms of very technical details. Through it all, readers will also find themselves meeting a number of famous linguists, many of whom have played key roles in shaping the field into what it is today (William Labov, Dell Hymes, Paul Grice, and Noam Chomsky, among many, many others (cf. especially 68-71, 152-6)).

One of the most significant contributions of Baugh’s book lies in its potential to introduce readers of various professions to the kind of knowledge and expertise that linguists can provide for them.

Non-linguist readers will also get a unique sense of how linguists see the world in Ch. 1, undoubtedly my favorite of the book. Here, Baugh describes the life experiences that conspired to push him toward becoming a linguist (and away from becoming an accountant, funnily enough). From his early childhood in the San Fernando Valley to his young adulthood as a student at Temple University in North Philadelphia, the anecdotes described here are rich and deeply engrossing. Baugh is a talented storyteller; readers will feel like they are really meeting the major players in his life, figures like his Uncle Orin, who gave Baugh a means to protect himself from possible police brutality; a female customer at his grandmother’s laundromat who enlisted the Nation of Islam to eradicate some drug dealers from the neighborhood; and the local Black Panthers, who garnered the trust and respect of the community by providing basic services to those in need. Baugh blends these personal stories with discussions of the surrounding national and international climates (the assassination of Kennedy, national suspicion of the Black Panthers, and the Vietnam War), noting how through all of these events, “seldom—if ever—were linguistic details ever mentioned, to say little of the potential role that linguistics might play in helping to resolve racial conflicts” (11). Baugh thus perceived a significant gap in our national conversations about race and equality, and a linguist was born.

Most scholarly professionals, linguists and non-linguists alike, suffer from the occasional (or not so occasional) feeling that what they do is meaningless, having no direct, positive impact on their fellow man. The overall message of Baugh’s book will inspire them otherwise, showing them concrete examples of the kinds of things they can do to help promote justice and equality to the direct benefit of society at large.