What is legal discourse? – a pragmatic account


Wojciech Kwarciński (Poznań)



In this presentation I am concerned with delimiting a distinctive form of language associated with law. Although the variety in question can be defined in several ways, I opt in favor of the term legal discourse and argue that it successfully captures the various relationships between language use and the realm of law. According to the proposed pragmatically-oriented characterization, discourse consists of contextualized utterances (text) that serve a certain primary communicative purpose. This purpose corresponds to the author’s perlocutionary intention to change the legal situation – an intention manifested in the text and reflected in the actual illocutionary force of its component utterances. One merit of employing the notion of a manifested perlocutionary intention as a tertium divisionis is that it sharply sets legal discourse apart from all other types of discourse. An additional advantage of the solution advocated here lies in the fact that the resultant account of legal discourse is compatible with the related concept of a legal act adopted in jurisprudence and based on similar principles. Moreover, viewing legal discourse as text (collection of utterances) occurring in a certain context enables one to distinguish within it different genres and, thereby, account for its significant internal diversification. This is because in each genre, apart from the primary communicative purpose common for all texts belonging to legal discourse, it is possible also to attest a genre-specific secondary communicative purpose relating to the way in which the legal situation is to be affected.


The foregoing definition of legal discourse as a specific type of language use relies heavily on the functions of utterances within a communicative situation undivorceable from its social context. The form and structure of utterances making up legal texts fit most comfortably into the realm of linguistic inquiry, while such components as context and function involve also extra-linguistic factors. This corroborates the claim that legal discourse cannot be analyzed within the framework of one discipline only but both its components (i.e. text and context) must be viewed in conjunction in an interdisciplinary enterprise. Consequently, a study of discourse in the sense presented above can be associated with applied linguistics and particularly with the area of it called pragmatics which, in turn, to yield valid results, must attend also to the basic concepts originating from legal theory.