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Topic Description



1.1Background to the Study

Language as a means of communication has linguistic features that are peculiar to different contexts of use. The study of these unique linguistic features is important for defining and creating the different genres of linguistic texts. Hence, it is reasonable to talk of variations of language such as the language of law, or legal document, the language of religion, the language of institutionalized aggression or the military, the language of agriculture etcetera. Linguists have deemed it fit to study different genres as well as understand how language functions in those fields in order to either standardize specific linguistic symbolizations or perform certain appropriate functions that are pertinent to the existence, definition and survival of the institutions and their members (Mey, 2001).

The profound linguistic nature of the legal institution has propelled several studies on English for Specific Purposes (ESP) in the 1960’s and inspired many linguists to study language use in specific contexts (Chenge 2008) including the legal context. Accordingly, there are diverse studies on courtroom language. Nonetheless, the Nigerian Appellate court judgement is yet to be subjected to adequate meta-linguistic scrutiny-especially for its pragmatic traits. Therefore, the specific concern of this work is on the language of appellate court judgement with a focus on investigating how appellate judges exploit language in performing the legal functions of overruling, modifying or accepting the judgements of lower courts.

One major problem with the Appellate court judgement (ApCJ) is that every meaning must be linguistic including the writer’s intention which is meta-linguistic. Furthermore, (ApCJ) is expected to clearly and objectively convey decisions without any sense of partiality. Nonetheless, the appellate judge is still charged with the responsibility of convincing other court participants of the veracity and correctness of his/her stance(s). The question is: How neutral/unbiased is the judge’s language. Recourse to the linguistic analysis of the appellate court judgement would suffice.

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It is about understanding the system of language. The aims of linguistic science are both theoretical and practical. McMenanim (2002:36) posits that linguistics is theoretical because linguists discover the underlying rules and patterns of language and then describe them in the languages of the world. This means linguists look for language characteristics that are present in all languages (universals), as well as features found only in certain language families or individual languages. The description of the universal and distinctive features of the languages of the world constitutes the focus of universal grammarians.

Whereas the goals of linguistics are also practical since they attempt to use linguistic knowledge for the purpose of improving speakers and languages. For instance, linguistic knowledge can be used for language teaching, language acquisition skills, forensic applications, etcetera. From the foregoing, linguistics is descriptive not prescriptive. This means its goal is to understand and describe language and languages, not prescribe rules for correct and appropriate usage. It is on this descriptive premise that linguists are poised to apply linguistic theories to language use in different fields like Agriculture, Education, Medicine, and Law as in the instance of this present study where language is applied to the language of law.

The Application of linguistic methods to different professional fields is of interest to
linguists for several reasons. Every field of profession has its   linguistic variations. These variations are the bricks for achieving the style and purpose of a text. In the same vein, linguistic variations are vital tools for contextualising a text- since every text-type exists with an intended purpose. Consequently, the purpose of a text, determines the linguistic variations and contextual features of that text.

The study of language variations has fascinated many linguists to focus their attention on investigating language features evident in different specialised fields of enquiry. One of such areas where the application of linguistics is gaining topical attention is Forensic Linguistics (FL). FL is an aspect of linguistics that studies language and law or involves the study of language in the context of the law. On the other hand, the field of language and law is a subfield of Applied Linguistics (APL) ‘which involves the application of linguistic theories and analyses to language issues in the real world’ (Jordan 2002:7). Thus, APL involves a wide range of subjects from language acquisition, language learning to language and gender issues and from orthographic questions, translation and literacy to language and law. However, the concern of this present study is on language and law. Precisely, the study investigates the nature and function of language in selected Nigerian Appellate Courts Judgements.

1.2      Statement of the Problem

The critical role of language in the courtroom has attracted and propelled many linguists to investigate the nature of legalese in general. Some of the relevant studies on the nature of the language of law include discourse of lawyers and clients (Maley et al, 1995; Haley, 1997). Discourse of trial Lawyers (Stygall, 1994), Discourse of courtroom questions (Hale, 1999; Berk-Seligson, 1999; Ridgney, 1999; Farinde, 2008), Language of Jury instructions (Levi, 1993; Jackson, 1995; Tiersma 1995; Dumas, 2000) and others. Nonetheless the foci of most of these literatures have been on asymmetrical relation of power in the language of courtroom discourse and stylistic study of language, which is, identifying language habits of speakers with the purpose of identifying those features which are restricted to certain individual’s use of language in certain kinds of social contexts. These imply that analysis of meta-propositional meanings (or the unsaid) in court judgements and symmetrical relations of power in general is still lean

Therefore, this present study investigates speaker meaning as encoded linguistically and asymmetrical relations of power in the courtroom. This is pertinent because constructing meanings in Appellate court judgements is not a simple task. Explaining this, Crystal and  Davy (1969:192)posit that ‘whoever composes a legal document must take the greatest pains to ensure it ‘says’ (mean) exactly what  he wants  it to say (mean)and at the same time give no room for misinterpretation’. They further elucidate on the assertion further:

The word ‘say’ is important in this context, because when a document is under scrutiny in a court of law,  and if a composer happens to have used language, attention will  be  paid only to what, as a piece of natural language, it(the text) appears actually to declare; any intentions of the composer which fails to emerge clearly are not usually considered in arriving at what the document means and if the composer happens to have used language which can be taken to mean something other than he intended, he has failed in his job.

Going by Crystal and Davy’s explanation above, language use in legal discourse is structured not only to express the literal meanings but also intentional meanings which both must be absolutely linguistic/propositional. Clarity from the foregoing means the content of the text should denote exactly what the writer intends. By extension, meanings in appellate court judgements must be derivable from the linguistic contents and not other resources. The question is: what meta-linguistic clues are derivable from the selected appellate court judgment?

Furthermore, appellate court judgement being a non-fictional text is expected to be objective and unbiased. Therefore, appellate justices in their choice of language try to be neutral but in the actual sense, are there no linguistic evidences of bias?

In summary, this current study fills these gaps- firstly; beyond the linguistic meanings, it investigates the meta-linguistic meanings in the texts with a view to bringing to the fore the linguistically encoded clues which the appellate judges exploit in signalling their potential communicative intentions. Secondly, in order to authenticate that appellate judges not only use language to dominate laymen in court but also their fellow judges, the study investigates the symmetrical relations of power in the language of Nigerian appellate court judgements.

1.3. Objective of the Study

 The general aim of this study is to describe the language of the Nigerian Appellate Court Judgements and find out how they are linguistically constructed in order to either uphold or reject the lower court judgement.

The specific objectives are to:

(1a) identify the variants of and frequency distribution of pragmatic markers exploited by
the appellate judges in the judgements;

(1b) identify the most preponderant pragmatic markers and discuss their functions
as exploited by the appellate judges in signalling their intentions;

(2) discover the extent to which the appellate judges, in up-holding or rejecting the lower
court judgement, threaten or save the faces of the trial court judges.

(3) determine the functions of the face saving acts and the face threatening acts exploited by
the justices and other courtroom participants in the selected Appellate judgements,

(4) ascertain the categories of lexical items employed in stance-taking and their significance.
(5) investigate the kinds of speech acts exploited in the construction of the Appellate court
judgements and state the most preponderant speech acts and

(6) identify the functions of the identified speech acts.


 1.4. Research Questions

Based on the  objectives, the research questions for this study are:

(1a) What are the variants of and the frequency distributions of the pragmatic markers
exploited by the appellate judges in the Appellate judgements?

(1b) Which pragmatic maker is the most preponderant and what are the functions of the
identified pragmatic markers exploited by the appellate judges in signalling their

(2) In order to uphold or reject the lower court judgement, to what extent do the appellate
judges threaten or save faces in the selected Appellate court judgement?

(3) How significant are the FSAs and the FTAs in the construction of the selected Appellate

(4) What categories of lexical items are employed in stance-taking and of what
significance are they?
(5)(a) What kinds of speech acts are exploited in the construction of the Appellate court

(b)What is the frequency of distribution of the speech acts types identified in the
judgements and which speech acts type is the most preponderant?

(6) What are the imports of the identified speech acts in the Appellate court

1.5   Significance of the Study

This study is significant first and foremost as it stands to expand the frontiers of research in language and law, most especially in Nigeria and Africa at large. Research on language and law still deserves more attention in Nigeria as a developing nation and in Africa at large.

Secondly, the findings of this study would be of significant benefits to legal practitioners and laymen who hardly can read court judgements and make sense of them. Legal professionals would observe how linguists can construe/ interpret   meanings in judicial documents. Judges will further learn the science of words and be more sensitive in the use of it.

Since every genre has its own typical information structure and text-forming resources, this study will objectively present the information structure, the linguistic or text-forming resources that characterise the Nigerian appellate court judgements. It reveals how the linguistic and meta-linguistic elements are structured to perform their communicative functions. On the whole, it will reveal the role of language in the complex task of writing a court judgement. The study objectively explains what judges do with words and the imports of their choice of words on case outcomes. It is important to investigate how language is used for building court judgements and how it provides justification for the same in court judgements, because it is possible for a judge to contradict against his/ her conclusion. As found in the instance of Dixon diaries (cited in Blackshield 2012: 7) who on completing his written judgement, found that he had reached the opposite conclusion to that which he expected to reach.

Significantly, this research brings to fore the need for legal practitioners to employ the services of linguists in the scrutiny of their judgements and legal documents in order to eliminate conflicts and misunderstandings. The study also has an underlying pedagogical motivation in that the results would be of great value and interest to the Nigerian students of English for Legal Purposes (ELP), the lawyers practising foreign legal affairs and Forensic Linguistics students. Lastly, this research would establish the relevance of linguistic analysis to legal discourse in general and court judgements in particular. Consequently, this will

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