Wednesday, October 4, 2023

High Court PA system won’t give you a voice

The TV-watching world literally heard Oscar Pistorius loud and clear when, in the course of giving an emotionally-charged testimony to the Johannesburg High Court, he used an internationally chart-topping American word that rhymes with the Spanish acronym of a Colombian guerilla movement.

“I said ‘Get the [FARC] out of my house!’” said Pistorius, in between bouts of primal wailing, to describe what sounded like a fictitious encounter with a nocturnal burglar.

Given that this was armed if asymmetrical conflict, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) dimension wouldn’t struggle too hard to fit into Pistorius’ murderous story. Interestingly, the world would probably not have heard those words if the South African blade runner had been giving evidence at the Gaborone High Court. This is why: while the Joburg court has a properly functioning public address system, those at the Gaborone High Court are merely decorative. Naturally, there will be some explanation of why this is the case but a lot of money has gone to waste.

The courts have four sets of microphones: at the bench where the judge sits, at the court staff’s table, at the two witness boxes which face each other across the courtroom and at the coach-bus-long lawyers’ table. The latter has three evenly interspersed microphones and supposing they worked, during roll-call hearings in the morning some lawyers would be positioned too far away from them. The non-functionality of the PA system is a huge problem and necessarily means that when lawyers who don’t have town-crier voices are addressing the court, neck-craning and ear-straining come standard for those who are keen to follow the proceedings. There is often the option of reading lips when one can’t hear properly but the court’s seating arrangement makes that impossible because everybody else sits behind lawyers who face the front. At some point you have to put two and two together to deduce meaning. When you hear a hissing sound, it is safe to assume that a lawyer is catering to the emotional needs of the court: “… if it pleases the court …” or “as the court pleases.”

With as many nationalities as partake in proceedings at the High Court, the sound waves within a courtroom arrange themselves into an acoustic montage that must be a lot like that of the United Nations General Assembly. Part of that montage is of affluent-Botswana accents which are favoured by the younger generation of lawyers and can be indecipherable to ears that were acquainted with the English phoneme system long before the country was carpeted with diamond money.

Everybody else articulates the consonantal sound in “attorney” as a dental lateral approximant, with the lips forming a sphincter-like moue. That is a lot like the /t/ in “tall” is commonly articulated. However, some young lawyers articulate that sound in a manner that phoneticians would classify as voiced alveolar implosive: leaving out the /o/, they articulate the word with the tip of the tongue, directing the airstream along the centre of the tongue rather than to the sides. Listening to these attorneys articulate “attorney” one imagines a scenario of a stockbroker-belt sophisticate ordering a special type of dish imported from heaven at one of those south-facing, whites-mostly Airport Junction gastropubs.


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