Obituary: Bethany K. Dumas

Bethany K. Dumas (1937-2021)

Professor Emerita Bethany K. Dumas passed away after an illness this past spring. She graduated with a PhD in linguistics from the University of Arkansas, writing her dissertation on the dialect of Ozark English. She went on to teach at Southwest Missouri State University and Trinity University before settling in at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where she taught with distinction from 1974 to 2012. Besides continuing her work in dialectology, she began to research and teach in the developing field of forensic linguistics, in which she wrote and lectured prolifically for the rest of her career. While teaching fulltime, she enrolled as a law student to develop a better understanding of the legal process, graduating with a JD degree from the University of Tennessee in 1985. Her special area of study was examining the comprehensibility of legal texts designed to be used by non-legally trained lay people, such as jury instructions and product safety warnings. Her work in this area was linguistically sophisticated but always written in an engaging, clear way that could be understood and appreciated by those without advanced linguistics training.

Bethany wanted her research to have real-world impact, so she sought out opportunities to interact with lawyers and judges, both as consultant and as a lecturer in continuing education programs for the legal community. For example, in 2009, she organized a two-day program for federal and state appellate judges on how to make jury instructions more comprehensible for jurors. To make the point that pattern instructions are often not understood by jurors, she set up a mock jury with undergraduate students, had them watch a snippet of testimony in a mock auto accident trial, and then sent them to deliberate on a verdict based on a commonly-used pattern jury instruction. The mock jurors were observed via one-way communication by the attending judges, who were shocked to discover that even college students found an instruction that many of them had been routinely using to be incomprehensible. That demonstration made a telling point with the judges that was memorable and effective.

Bethany will be remembered by all who knew her as a lovely, gracious person who unfailingly gave thoughtful and insightful advice on career and personal matters alike. She also had a dry sense of humor; for example, when a second-language-English speaking conference attendee referred to her by pronouncing her last name as “Dumbass,” she didn’t embarrass him by correcting him, but commented as an aside to the person sitting next to her, “Well, it’s a good reminder that we’re all dumbasses from time to time.” Bethany Dumas made unique contributions to the community of forensic linguists and will be sorely missed personally and professionally.

Janet Ainsworth, IAFL President