What is forensic linguistics?
[Click here to watch Tim Grant talk about investigative forensic linguistics]
Forensic linguistics can be fairly characterised as taking linguistic knowledge, methods and insight, and applying these to the forensic context of law, investigation, trial, punishment and rehabilitation. It is not a homogenous discipline in its interest, methods or approach, but rather both involves a wide spectrum of practitioners and researchers applying themselves to different areas of the field. There are perhaps three main areas of application for linguists working in forensic contexts; understanding language of the written law, understanding language use in forensic and judicial processes and the provision of linguistic evidence.
- The language of the law
Any brush with legal language whether it be a mortgage agreement or the language of a will can leave one wondering why it can be so complex and difficult to read. Linguists are interested in the nature of the complexity of legal language and also whether anything can be done about it. Peter Tiersma in particular with both legal and linguistic training has had an active role in reforming the language of jury instructions in the California penal code. The successes of such plain language reforms have significant implications for wider reform of the judicial system.
- Language in the Judicial Process
The judicial process from point of arrest, through interview, charge, trial and sentencing is substantially linguistic and linguists have studied all aspects of this process. Linguists, for example, have a considerable interest in the language of police (and other) interviews of witnesses (e.g. Johnson, 2007) and suspects (e.g. Haworth, 2006). There is some concentration on issues of language disadvantage in interviews whether this concerns those individuals that psychologists consider vulnerable (e.g. Aldridge & Wood, 1998) or second language users (e.g. Russell, 2000). There is interest in the language of lawyers and witnesses and the effectiveness of linguistic strategies in examination-in-chief and cross-examination. Susan Ehrlich, for example, analyses the language of rape trials observing differential use in the active voices of the prosecution contrasting with the passive voices of the defence, exemplified with "as we were talking our pants were undone." Some of these linguistic strategies appear in barristers' training manuals but whether conscious or unconscious Erhlich demonstrates that the operation of these linguistic devices can have a rhetorical effect on courtroom decision makers.
- Linguistic evidence
Linguists have been called to give expert testimony in a variety of types of cases across UK and international jurisdictions. The vast majority of cases where linguists are involved concern issues of linguistic competence. Clearly defendants who are non-English speakers require interpreters at police interview and in the courtroom, but equally clearly judgements of linguistic competence need to be subtle, a defendant may have a sufficient command of English for casual daily interactions but be disadvantaged in more formal and stressful contexts.
As language is ultimately about the communication of meaning it is perhaps unsurprising that linguists sometimes give testimony as to what a person meant. One of the most celebrated linguist working in this area is Roger Shuy who has shown that a dispute over whether a threat, bribe or other language crime was committed can be illuminated by a careful conversation or topic analysis.
Trademark disputes often concern questions of when a trademarked term begins to be used generically. In such a situation legally trademark death may be said to occur. This leaves corporations in a dilemma for example if the generic verb to search the internet becomes 'to google' then Google will suffer trademark death, lose its legal protection and become a term any search engine can use. The examination of this process and whether it has occurred in a particular case is also an area where linguists have testified.
In some cases a text of disputed or queried authorship is compared with texts of known authorship in order to try to link texts by the same author. Such authorship analysis evidence has been used in a variety of cases across the UK, USA and Australian jurisdictions. Evidential texts have varied considerably in length and type in recent cases from SMS text messages to long terrorist conspiracy documents.
The field of forensic phonetics is a specialised area associated with forensic linguistics and involves the auditory and acoustic analysis of voice recordings to achieve similar ends (Rose, 2002). Not only can voices be identified against comparison a samples (French & Harrison, 2006), but background, gender and even height (Greisbach, 1999) can be predicted from single samples.
Aldridge, M., & Wood, J. (1998). Interviewing Children: A Guide for Child Care and Forensic Practitioners. London: Wiley.
French, J. P., & Harrison, P. (2006). Investigative and evidential applications of forensic speech science. In A. Heaton-Armstrong, E. Shepherd, G. H. Gudjonsson & D. Wolchover (Eds.), Witness Testimony: Psychological, Investigative and Evidential Perspectives. Oxford: OUP.
Greisbach, R. (1999). Estimation of speaker height from formant frequencies. Forensic Linguistics: The International Journal of Speech Language and the Law, 6(2), 265-277.
Haworth, K. (2006). The dynamics of power and resistance in police interview discourse. Discourse and Society, 17, 739 - 759.
Johnson, A. (2007). Producing the voice of the victim: the role of the interviewer investigating sexual offences Forensic Linguistics. The International Journal of Speech Language and the Law: Forensic Linguistics, 14(1).
Rose, P. (2002). Forensic speaker identification. London: Taylor and Francis.
Russell, S. (2000). "Let me put it simply": the case for a standard translation of the police caution and its explanation. Forensic Linguistics: The International Journal of Speech Language and the Law, 7(1), 26-48.
What is forensic linguistics?