n Tydskrif vir die Suid-Afrikaanse Reg - The secret life of legal language : aantekeninge

Volume 2004, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 0257-7747
  • E-ISSN: 1996-2207



On the most widely accepted and most straightforward construction, one can say that language serves as the indispensable tool of the law. The relationship between law and language is akin to the relationship between the painter and his paintbrush or between the butcher and his knife. Although the substance and creative energy flow from the painter or the butcher (or the lawyer), the execution of his work is wholly dependent on a good and reliable tool. Not any old tool will do - for quality work the tool must be (referring to Wittgenstein's phrase, "what we MEAN must always be " in (1961) 68). For language to be a useful instrument for conveying meaning, it must be "specific, univocal, and rigorously controllable" (Derrida (1988) 1). The concept of binding rules - and by implication the concept of a legal system - relies on our belief that words have a determinate and transferable meaning. We must regard the statement "A says B to C" as possible and reasonable. Words "have a meaning", that is, there must be something that one means when one speaks or writes or that one grasps when one understands speech or writing. As Glendinning puts it more formally, "an polysemia internal to conceptuality as such ... is inconceivable" ( (1998) 77).

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