“Do you plead guilty?” – “No but yeah but no” – Analysing language in courtrooms or how to make the lawyer go nuts

Back in the early 2000s, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ran a comedy series named Little Britain, which – unless you’ve seen it already – we’d advise you to binge watch immediately. It’s freaking hilarious! Let’s briefly introduce you to one of the show’s main characters: Vicky Pollard. She’s best known for her unique and unforgettable “no but yeah but no” catchphrases.

(GIF source: GIPHY)

To make yourself familiar with Vicky’s very own way of talking, watch the following video of the courtroom scene where she’s being accused of shoplifting, but she constantly refuses to answer the lawyer’s questions and talks about something completely different instead:

Now do you think that what happened in this scene would also happen in a real court? Probably not. Let’s have a closer look at the following extract from the series’ script and find out why this is so unusual, on a linguistic level:

Lawyer: Vicky Pollard, you have been charged with shoplifting. On the 11th April, it is alleged you went into the Erskine branch of Superdrug. Once there you attempted to steal an eyeliner pencil and a can of Red Bull by concealing them in your leggings. Now in the face of the overwhelming evidence we’ve heard today against you, do you stand by your plea of — “Not guilty”?

Vicky: No but yeah but no because what happened was right this thing happened what I don’t know nothing about shut up I wasn’t meant to be anywhere even near there. Then Meredith came over and started stirring it all up started calling me all these things about this thing I didn’t even know about.


Little Britain, Series 1, Episode 4: Magistrate’s Court

It is rather obvious why the lawyer is stumped after Vicky’s highly irritating answer, isn’t it? As in every conversation you are engaged in, there are norms you have to follow when you are being questioned by a lawyer, and Vicky ignores all of them. The interview in court has a certain goal, namely to find out whether the defendant is guilty or not. To achieve this goal, both lawyer and interviewee have to act cooperatively, which means that they both have to fulfil the requirements that are necessary for an interview in court to succeed. The lawyer leads the interview as he/she has the position of power in this exact situation, thus he/she asks the questions and the witness has to respond to them directly and truthfully—you get the idea. In linguistics, we call this need for cooperation between the participants of a conversation the Cooperative Principle (CP). It was introduced by the philosopher Paul Grice (1913-1988), who also came up with four different maxims (norms, basically) that you should stick to when you want to obey the CP, i.e. when you want to have a successful talk exchange:

  1. Maxim of quantity → Just give as much information as is required in this conversation.
  2. Maxim of quality → Be truthful.
  3. Maxim of relation → Only say things that are relevant for this conversation.
  4. Maxim of manner → Be clear and brief. Avoid ambiguity.

Go back to Vicky’s answer to the lawyer’s question and you will see that she completely ignores these maxims. The usual answer to “Do you plead guilty?” would be either “yes” or “no” but Vicky goes on and on with information that obviously aren’t even required for this conversation (Maxim #1). She also avoids telling the truth (Maxim #2), brings up topics that the lawyer didn’t even ask about and that aren’t relevant (Maxim #3), and her overall answer is very long and unclear (Maxim #4). Linguists Malcom Coulthard and Allison Johnson, who also analyzed Vicky Pollard’s speech for a textbook on forensic linguistics, say that by disregarding all of the conversational maxims, she completely disrespects the lawyer and reduces “his control to zero.” (Coulthard and Johnson 2007: 29)

(GIF source: GIPHY)

What we have done here, is one of the things researchers in the field of forensic linguistics do. They analyse language in legal or criminal contexts, e.g. language in courtrooms or in police interrogations. But there’s more to it than that: they also take part in police inquiries, for example when someone has received a blackmail letter, and the police needs to know who might have written it. In Germany, these linguists often work for the Federal Criminal Police Office, better known as the ‘Bundeskriminalamt’ (BKA). By means of text analyses, they are able to make “statements about the place of origin, age and activity of the author”. Sounds pretty cool, right? If you want to know more about forensic linguistics, you might want to check out earlier LAMA posts on this subject or you can have a look at the websites we have provided for you at the bottom of this page.

From what you have read here, can you think of other areas that forensic linguists may be involved in? Tell us in the Comment section below!


Further information:

https://www.bka.de/EN/OurTasks/SupportOfInvestigationAndPrevention/ForensicScience/PhysicalEvidence/Extortion/AuthorshipIdentification/authorshipidentification_node.html (Authorship identification at the BKA)




Picture credits:

Featured image: Pixabay CC0.


Hi there! We are Sophie, Paul and Melina and we are first-year students of the MA programme "Applied Linguistics" in Bonn. We hope you enjoy our posts!

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