Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Schmidt, James D.

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of History


This dissertation examines court interpretation and English language fluency in US law from the Revolution to the Progressive Era. From its inception, the United States has operated with an Anglophone legal system that presumes English fluency embedded in a society that has contained an ever-evolving population of non-English speakers. Using legal records from cases with non-English speakers, I study how court interpretation evolved over the course of the long nineteenth century. The major themes that emerge from my research tell the story of how the American legal system discovered interpreters as the tool for communication with non-English speakers in the legal system before the Civil War Era, how they perfected that tool in the Gilded Age era, and how they realized the power of the interpreters was changing the legal system and society by the Progressive Era. Between the Early Republic and the Progressive Era, most jurisdictions relied on untrained and unreliable interpreters who were deployed only at the pleasure of judges. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, I show, new linguistic circumstances forced things to change, even if some judges clarified their discontent with those changes and tried to control the interpreters. I also explore the effects of poor translations and the negation of translation services in the fairness of the legal proceedings. This project contributes to several larger scholarly concerns, one of which is the study of the social power of whiteness. Particularly in the later sections, this dissertation examines the importance of linguistic performance as a way of understanding what it means to be white against the backdrop of shifting racial conventions. In addition to whiteness studies, this dissertation adds to our knowledge of immigration history by exploring what happens when immigrants who followed the cultural and legal norms of their own homelands experienced the consequences of a cultural collision inside the courtroom. On the broadest level, the project speaks to students of legal pluralism and legal imperialism.


275 pages




Northern Illinois University

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