Duke University Linguistics Program

    Ronald R Butters
  • Ronald R Butters

  • Professor Emeritus
  • English
  • Campus Box 90014
  • Secondary web page
  • Curriculum Vitae
  • Overview

    (1) current American English and (2) linguistics and legal issues, with special interest in trademarks, contracts, and statutes
  • Other

    See also my forensic linguistic web site and publications at http://trademarklinguistics.com/ (click on "search" immediately above)
  • Specialties

    • Legal Anthropology
    • North America
  • Research Summary

    Linguistics
  • Research Description

    Ron Butters, who directed the Duke Linguistics Program for many years, publishes chiefly on (1) current American English and (2) linguistics and legal issues, with special interest in trademarks, contracts and statutes, and defamation. He also pursues his interest in language-and-law questions as a legal consultant and expert witness. He is co-editor of The International Journal of Speech, Language, and the Law and current president of the International Association of Forensic Linguists. His publications include The Death of Black English: Divergence and Convergence in Black and White Vernaculars (Lang, 1989); “Linguistic Change in Words One Owns: How Trademarks Become ‘Generic’,” Studies in the History of the English Language II, ed. A. Curzan and K. Emmons (Mouton de Gruyter, 2004), 111–23; “Sociolinguistic Variation and the Law,” ch. 12 in Sociolinguistic Variation: Theories, Methods and Applications, ed. by R. Bayley and C. Lucas (Cambridge UP, 2007, 318–37); “Changing Linguistic Issues in U.S. Trademark Litigation,” Proceedings of the Second European IAFFL Conference on Forensic Linguistics-Language and the Law, ed. by M. Turelll et al. (Publicacions de l'IULA, No. 19, 2007), 29–42; “Trademarks,” ch. 16 in Dimensions of Forensic Linguistics, ed. J. Gibbons and M. Turell (Benjamins, 2008); “A Linguistic Look at Trademark Dilution,” Santa Clara Computer & High Technology Law Journal (vol. 24, 2008).
  • Education

      • Ph.D.,
      • English (with concentration in linguistics),
      • University of Iowa, Iowa City,
      • 1967
      • B.A. with Honors and Highest Distinction (Phi Beta Kappa),
      • English,
      • University of Iowa, Iowa City,
      • 1962
  • Selected Publications

      • "How Not to Strike it Rich: Semantics, Pragmatics, and Semiotics of A Massachusetts Lottery Ticket."
      • Applied Linguistics
      • (2004)
      • .
      Publication Description

      In June 2001, the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission released for sale a new “scratch-and-play” lottery game card named “Caesars [sic] Palace®” (played by scratching the surface of each card at designated spots to reveal hidden numbers or images). It offered a grand prize of $1,000,000 to players whose game cards contained certain spots that matched. Very soon, numerous purchasers began to claim million-dollar prizes; most of these demands-for-payment were denied by the Commission on the grounds that the claims were based upon a misreading of the game-card instructions. The claimants appealed, but their appeals were denied by a special hearing board appointed by the Commission. Further appeal to state courts in Massachusetts can by law be based only on procedural grounds, not the facts of the case. This paper analyzes the semantic, pragmatic, and semiotic bases for the claimants’ and Commission’s conflicting interpretations of the instructions—a somewhat new application of linguistics to the field of language and law. The essay also raises theoretical questions concerning the relationship between linguistics and semiotic theory in the context of real- world data.

      revision of a paper presented at the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics, 19 April 2002

      • "Chance as Cause of Language Variation and Change."
      • Journal of English Linguistics
      • (Mar. 2001)
      • .
      Publication Description

      Revision of a paper read at the Tenth International Conference on Methods in Dialectology, St. John's Newfoundland, Aug. 1999

      • "'We didn't realize that lite beer was supposed to suck!': The Putative Vulgarity of X sucks in American English."
      • Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
      • (2001)
      • .
      Publication Description

      On April 17, 1991, a twelve-year-old junior-high student in Norfolk, Virginia, was suspended from school for refusing to desist from wearing a tee shirt on the front of which was printed in very large letters, DRUGS SUCK! School officials argued that the inscription was "inappropriate for school attire" because it is "vulgar," "derives from a sexual connotation of oral-genital contact," and hence is potentially disruptive to the maintenance of order in school. The child's parents sued, insisting that the shirt contained a valuable message of critical importance and that the vernacular language was not "vulgar" but simply contemporary slang which conveyed the message in a powerful fashion to an otherwise quite impervious audience. The case presents a complex of problems in semiotics, pragmatics, semantics, and historical linguistics. Most speakers of American English today know that "X Sucks!" has a primary colloquial meaning "X is bad." However, many speakers also attach secondary meanings and even putative etymologies to the slang phrase--usually connected to fellatio--which some of them may find deeply offensive; yet (unlike the Norfolk school officials) they have no difficulty accepting the phrase and even using it themselves. The paper demonstrates (a). that the etymological connection between "X Sucks!" and fellatio is largely a folk etymology; and (b). that contemporary connotations of fellatio for "X Sucks!" are foregrounded only when the specific issue of putative etymology is raised, thus allowing speakers to accept a phrase that they might otherwise find inappropriate.

      Revision of a paper read at the meeting of the American Dialect Society, Jan. 6, 2000

      • "“What Is About to Take Place Is a Murder": Construing the Racist Subtext in a Small-Town Virginia Courtroom."
      • Language in Action: New Studies of Language and Society.
      • Ed. Peg Griffin, Joy Peyton, Walt Wolfram, and Ralph Fasold.
      • Hampton,
      • 2000.
  • View All Publications
  • Search Publications