One word or two? Psycholinguistics and sociolinguistic interpretations of meaning in a civil court case


  • Alison Wray Cardiff University
  • John J. Staczek The Garvin School of International Management, Thunderbird



formulaic language, racist language, dialect, semantics, misunderstanding, psycholinguistics


What relative weighting should be given to court case, to psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic explanations of an alleged offence? We review the case of an African-American plaintiff, who claimed that her receipt of work of a framed document with the title "Temporary Coon Ass Certificate" from a white mailer supervisory-level employee in the same agency constituted racial discrimination in the workplace. Dialect research conducted by JJS, as expert witness for the prosecution, demonstrated that the dialectical use of coon ass to refer to Cajuns (white settlers of French descent) was restricted to the states of Louisiana and south-eastern Texas. It was argued by the prosecution to be unreasonable to expect someone from another part of the USA to know the meaning of the word. The jury found in favour of the plaintiff. The prosecution case rested upon the premise that when a word is unknown, it will be interpreted by breaking it down into smaller units, in this case coon and ass, both derogatory terms, the former strongly racist. We explore the psycholinguistic rationale for this assumption and its converse, that when a word is well known to an individual (s)he may fail to see how it is constructed.

Author Biographies

Alison Wray, Cardiff University

Alison Wray earned her BA Hons (1983) and doctorate (1988) in linguistics from the University of York. She was a researcher and lecturer at the University Colege of Ripon and York St. John, York, until 1996, when she was appointed Assistant Director of the Wales Applied Language Research Unit, University of Wales, Swansea. Since 1999 she has worked in Cardiff University's Centre for Language and Communication Research, where she is now a Reader. Her main area of research is the psycholinguistic modelling of how language is stored, processed and learnt, with particular reference to the phenomenon of formulaic language. Her book Formulaic Language and the Lexicon (Cambridge University Press, 2002) was awarded the 2003 BAAL Book Prize.

John J. Staczek, The Garvin School of International Management, Thunderbird

John Staczek is a linguist and professor of global management communication at Thunderbird's Garvin School of International Management. His research focuses on language variation and change, lexical innovation, specific-purposes languages use in business and legal settings and academic program administration. He is a consultant in forensic linguistics (dialects of language use, lexical change and statute readability) and in corporate communication (oral and written texts and executive coaching).



How to Cite

Wray, A., & Staczek, J. J. (2005). One word or two? Psycholinguistics and sociolinguistic interpretations of meaning in a civil court case. International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, 12(1), 1–18.