The prosecution of Elisabeth Sabaditch-Wolff

The same word, when it is uttered by a human being, can have several different meanings. This is a rather obvious point, which can be verified simply by opening a dictionary. I argue here that the prosecution of Elisabeth Sabaditch-Wolff by the Austrian authorities was illegitimate, because they based their prosecution on something that the defendant never actually said.

Spoken language displays a lack of planning and contains a high proportion of "errors". But it is now well understood that spoken language "works" because it refers to much that is unsaid. It does this by drawing on a shared social and linguistic context. That shared context is used by speakers (and listeners) to invoke a range of shared cultural and linguistic knowledge. (Maybin, 2001) Context is therefore vital in order to understand the spoken word - for one person to speak meaningfully with another.

For example, take the utterance "drive". It can mean a swing of a golf club, or controlling an automobile as you travel along the road. A human being could make the utterance: "Your driving sucks!" while on the golf course, and her meaning would be easily understood. The same person could issue the utterance: "Your driving sucks!" after being dropped off by her golfing partner after they'd given her a lift home. Again, her meaning would be easily understood.

But the same utterance issuing forth from the same speaker, made to the same listener, would have an entirely different meaning - depending on the context.

It follows that the meaning of any utterance which issues forth from the mouth of a human being can only be properly understood by first understanding the context in which that utterance was made.

It is possible for linguistic differences to lead to legal mistakes. For example, the Aboriginal people living in Australia have a culture which is extremely open. Individuals have extended family ties and communal areas are extremely common in Aboriginal society. Personal privacy is obtained not so much though personal space as it is through the use of language.

Aboriginal people often do not ask direct questions in order to elicit information; instead they will make a statement which serves as an invitation to the other party to contribute further information on the same topic. There are often considerable time delays, and much further conversation, before the eventual imparting of such information by the other party. In this way Aboriginal people can maintain personal "space" by not divulging what they know, or think about a subject, unless they are comfortable doing so.

One linguistic strategy employed by Aboriginal people when they deal with officialdom in Australia is "gratuitous concurrence". When Aboriginal people are confronted by a direct question, they sometimes say "Yes" in order to acknowledge the question, and signal that they will address it in due course. In the Aboriginal linguistic and social context, that is what the utterance means.

What Aboriginal people are not doing is responding in the affirmative to the question put to them. However, Australian legal officials can, and do, misunderstand this utterance when it issues forth from the mouth of an Aboriginal English speaker, and take it to mean precisely that. (Eades, 2001)

If a state ignores the context an utterance was made in, and instead assigns a meaning to that utterance which is taken from an entirely different context, then citizens can be prosecuted on the basis of a linguistic mistake, and even found guilty of saying something which they did not actually say. This is what has happened to Elisabeth Sabaditch-Wolff.

In spoken English, we see that "the meanings of words are shaped by the contexts in which they are used". (Mercer, 2001) And there are different "discourse communities" within English speaking societies, groups of people within a larger society which use spoken language in a particular way. (Swales, 1990) For example, members of the legal and medical professions belong to "discourse communities" who use language in a way that laypeople do not.

In everyday English, the utterance "paedophile" is used to refer to an adult who has displayed a sexual interest in children. It does not matter whether the person in question is single or married, or whether they have a sexual interest in adults (of either gender.) For example, a Google search for "Warren Jeffs paedophile prophet" results in over 45 000 hits. Jeffs was a male in his fifties who claimed to be a prophet, was married multiple times, and who was convicted of having sexual relations with underage girls. Jeffs is referred to as a "paedophile" in newspapers and blogs from around the world.

Here are some examples:

"Perhaps most shocking of all has been the revelation that some of the young wives assisted the paedophile with his sexual assaults." - Paul Bentley, writing for the Daily Mail, 9th August 2011.

"Convicted paedophile Warren Jeffs, who lead an extreme sect of the Mormon Church, has been reportedly dictating to followers from his Texas jail cell." - Caption under photo of Warren Jeffs, Daily Mail, 16th December 2011.

"During his bizarre self-representation while on trial for sexual assault, the paedophile repeatedly insisted that the charges were an attack on his people and religion." - Emma Reynolds, writing for the Daily Mail, 30th May 2012.

"Two guilty verdicts in the state of Texas versus polygamist leader Warren Jeffs finally vindicated the right of Jeffs’ underage victims to be free of sexual predation under the guise of protected religious activities. [...] Even more disturbing than Jeffs’ cult-sanctioned pedophilia was the revelation during trial that three of Jeffs’ “wives” were in the room holding down the 12-year old victim while Jeffs raped her." - Cathy Scott, writing for Forbes, 5th August 2011.

"Followers of cult leader Warren Jeffs are preparing for the end of the world after the jailed paedophile warned of a New Year’s Eve apocalypse. Experts are monitoring the movements of the sect closely after investigators told CNN that Jeffs’ warning could send a “dangerous signal” to its 10,000 members worldwide." - John Hall, writing for The Independent, 31st December 2012.

"Laid bare in a Texas courtroom this week was the ugly, disturbing truth about the institutionalized pedophilia practised by polygamous leader Warren Jeffs and supported, tacitly if not overtly, by his 10,000 followers in the United States and Bountiful, B.C." - Daphne Bramham, writing for the Montreal Gazette, 9th August 2011.

"The final gavel has fallen on the trial of Warren Jeffs, serial polygamist and pedophile. The former polygamist sect leader will serve a life sentence for the sexual assaults of two young girls that he had declared his "spiritual brides." [...] Warren Jeffs has repeatedly claimed that he is a victim of religious persecution, but it has been proven that he is not a victim, but rather victimized others under the guise of religion." - Barbara Edwards, writing for new.gather.com, 9th August 2011.

When Elisabeth Sabaditch-Wolff employed the term "paedophile" then, she did so in the same way as Barbara Edwards, Daphne Bramham, John Hall, Cathy Scott, Paul Bentley, and every other writer around the world who used the term to refer to Warren Jeffs: to refer to a man in his fifties who was already married, claimed to be a prophet, and who had consummated a marriage with an underage girl. (Watt, 1974)

The meaning of a word is shaped by its context: the shared experiences of the speaker and her listeners, their cultural values and expectations and their linguistic knowledge - including, naturally enough, their knowledge of how a word is used by other members of their discourse community. And as noted previously, in everyday English the term "paedophile" means an adult who has displayed a sexual interest in children, and that is all it means. When Elisabeth Sabaditch-Wolff employed the term, that is what she meant by it. That is how her listeners understood it. That is how the word is used in everyday English. That is what she actually said.

However, the Austrian authorities have not prosecuted Elisabeth Sabaditch-Wolff on the basis of what she said; in a similar fashion to the Australian authorities prosecuting Aboriginal people (see above), the Austrian authorities assigned a different meaning to the utterance made by her and what's more, they did it half way through the legal proceedings.

Apparently the term is used to mean something quite different by the members of a different discourse community. Highly qualified professionals in the field of psychology use the term to refer to an individual who has an exclusive sexual interest in children. (That is to say, the individual being referred to would not have a sexual interest in adults of the opposite sex, and would not be married.)

Neither usage is right, and neither is wrong. There are simply two meanings attached to the same utterance, and that utterance is used by the members of different discourse communities, in different contexts, to mean two different things.

Elisabeth Sabaditch-Wolff is not a medical professional, any more than the journalists cited above are. Elisabeth Sabaditch-Wolff did not make the utterance in question in a medical context, any more than those reporters did. The people who heard the utterance were laypeople, just like the average reader of the many media outlets which used the same term to refer to Warren Jeffs.

Yet the Austrian authorities decided to assign a meaning to the utterance that was made which is only recognised by a particular discourse community, one to which neither the accused nor her listeners belonged.

The Austrian authorities put a word into the mouth of the accused which she did not actually speak - and on that basis secured a conviction.


Maybin, J. and Mercer. N. Using English: from conversation to canon, Routledge, pp. 5-6, p. 12

Eades, D. Communative Strategies in Aboriginal English, in Using English: from conversation to canon, Routledge, pp. 28-31

Maybin, J. and Mercer, N. Using English: from conversation to canon, Routledge, p. 97

Swales, J. quoted in Maybin, J. and Mercer. N. Using English: from conversation to canon, Routledge, p. 97-98

Watt, W. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, Galaxy 409, p. 102

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