Sunday, August 7, 2016

The meaning of it all

I recently participated in an international conference at the University of Haifa entitled Legal Language and Discourse 6.  For four days, experts in wide variety of fields with a wider variety of perspectives discussed a seemingly simply issue: what does a word mean?  The answers to that question are far from academic and have had a major impact on people’s lives.

For example, Prof. Lawrence Solan brought up the tricky issues of whether the qualifier using a weapon in a drug offense includes exchanging drugs for arms and carrying a weapon includes it being in a car. The answer is yes for both cases according to the Supreme Court. In a Jewish context, there were opposing view between Prof. Berachayahu Lifschitz and Mr. Moshe Ovedia whether Jewish rules of life should be based on the words or spirit of the written text of the bible.  In other words, what does the prohibition on spitting on Shabbat have to do with a day of rest?

The conference was enriched by a plethora of Chinese speakers providing their own point of view on both Western and Chinese law. It was intriguing to Chinese judges construe the meaning of the facts. According to Professor Le Cheng, the issue of pornography is reflected by how the judge chooses to describe the photograph of an apparently naked body artist. Prof. Zhang Luping discussed the term hearsay, noting that the statement “she said that she was the Pope” is admissible in reference to the mental state of the speaker.

Many lecturers discussed the role of the English language in the law. Of special interest was the speech of Prof. Halina Sierocka. She presented the challenges and success of the legal English program at the University of Bialystok. Given the importance of English as a lingua franca in international law, she highlighted the uneven but significant progress in Poland in terms of mastering legal English as well as the issue of bilingual legal studies. On the same note, Prof. Powell, who teaches law in several countries in Asia, provided a detailed survey of legal English in Asia, noting the practical implications of using English in each country. A group of Polish speakers, participants in an ongoing project to create a comprehensive international data base of law language, outlined the initial steps already taken in this direction.

One of the strangest themes, albeit unintentional, was that a word sometimes means, as Alice says, exactly what I intend it to mean. According to Prof. Dennis Kurzon, Henry VI interpreted the term malice to mean doing anything he disapproves of. Likewise, as explained by Xin Wang, there is very little domestic violence crime in the People’s Republic of China but there are problems of unacceptable behavior.

I have only mentioned a few of the lectures and apologize to those who I left out. With all this discussion of words and their meaning, I must add that the words exchanged by the participants during the breaks, meals and trips enriched the meaning of international communication, appreciation of cultural diversity and recognition of universality. For that in particular, I wish to thank Prof. Sol Azuelos-Atias for organizing the conference. 

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