What is Forensic Linguistics?
Does language really matter? Definitely, yes! Especially in the area of Forensic Linguistics (FL), language is the key element. But what is Forensic Linguistics and what is its purpose? Is it only about language and the law or is it connected to other fields of practice? Where can you study it? What famous cases have used this special science? This post will answer these and other questions.
One of the main goals of Forensic Linguistics is to provide a careful and systemic analysis of language. The results of this analysis can be used by many different professionals. For example, police officers can use this evidence not only to interview witnesses and suspects more effectively but also to solve crimes more reliably. Lawyers, judges and jury members can use these analyses to help evaluate questions of guilt and innocence more fairly. And translators and interpreters can use this research to communicate with greater accuracy. Forensic Linguistics serves justice and helps people to find the truth when a crime has been committed.
More than forty years ago, Jan Svartvik, a linguistic expert, showed dramatically just how helpful Forensic Linguistics can be. His analysis involved the transcript of a police interview with Timothy Evans, a man who had been found guilty of murdering his wife and his baby daughter in 1949. Svartvik demonstrated that parts of the transcript differed considerably in their grammatical style when he compared them to the rest of the recorded interview. On the basis of this research and other facts, the courts ruled that Evans had been wrongly accused. Unfortunately, Evans had already been executed in 1950. However, thanks to Svartvik’s work, 16 years later, he was officially pardoned and his name was cleared. Svartvik’s work is considered today to be one of the first major cases in which Forensic Linguistics was used to achieve justice in a court of law. Today, Forensic Linguistics is a well-established, internationally recognized independent field of study.1
The following video shows how Forensic Linguistics can be used by law enforcement to help them identify suspects and bring criminals to justice:
Investigation Discovery (2008, October 23). Solved – Wife’s Murder. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=8&v=acHg0L5ky30
Importantly, the work of Forensic Linguistics is not only used to find the guilty, but also to protect the innocent. An excellent example of how this can be done involves a special fixed-form written text, called the “Miranda Warnings”.2 Most of us who have watched a crime show are familiar with the scene where the police tell a person they are placing under arrest: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you […].”3 The words in this text are very important because they inform people about their rights and protections under the law.
The fact that someone has been arrested does not necessarily mean that he or she is guilty; and even when a suspected person did commit a crime, the police are still bound by law to make sure that the laws of the country are respected and protected. To help ensure that these regulations and procedures are always respected, police are required in many countries to read out formal text. In the United States, this text is called the “Miranda Warnings”. Forensic Linguists who specialize in the analysis of “Miranda Rights” can show how variations in how the text is read can alter the way it is understood. They might also investigate how translations of the text might change the original legal intention. The importance of this type of work is demonstrated in the following video:
HumanRightsWatch (2016, August 17). You Have the Right to Remain Silent – California Bill Strengthens Miranda for Kids. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-VW8Ldw6YI
Today, Forensic Linguistics is commonly divided into two major areas with many different sub-branches.
- Written language: for example, the language used in regional, national, and international law, today and in the past; transcripts of police interviews with witnesses and suspects; criminal messages used in cases of terrorist threat, suicide, kidnapping, blackmailing, etc.; the translation of legal documents from one language into another; the examination of text material to answer questions about who may or may not have been the author. The written language examined by a Forensic Linguists can be in many different forms: phone messages, notes, handwritten letters, posting in social media, etc.
- Spoken language: the language used by interpreters during official interviews of witnesses, suspects, and victims; the language used by offenders or victims during a crime. The focus of this area is not simply what was said, but how it was said.
Linguists who primarily investigate written language look at features such as spelling, sentence construction, word-choice, and punctuation, etc. By comparison, linguists who principally examine spoken language focus on accent, dialect, pronunciation, tone of voice, speed and rhythm of speech, etc.
As the name implies, most experts working within Forensic Linguistics have a degree in linguistics, the study of language. However, a great many of Forensic Linguists also have a degree or advanced training in other academic fields such as Law, Psychology, Sociology, Computational Sciences and Criminology.
There are many famous cases that have involved the analysis of language by Forensic Linguistics. These cases have dealt with suicide letters written by famous artists like Kurt Cobain; ransom notes connected to Charles Lindbergh (the first pilot who managed to cross the Atlantic flying from New York to Paris) whose son was kidnapped and later found dead in the backyard of Lindbergh family home; a kidnapping note discovered after the disappearance of JonBenét Ramsey, a child beauty queen who was reported missing by her family and later found dead in the family cellar.
Not all cases involving Forensic Linguists involved violent crimes. There are also many legal disputes over trademark. One of the most famous is the legal suit Beatles’s Apple Corps brought against Steven Jobs’s Apple Inc. Another common type of non-violent crime that Forensic Linguists may provide useful evidence for involves arguments over who originally wrote a text like a poem, short story, or novel. These cases involve questions of plagiarism. When it is unclear who wrote a text, a forensic linguist can analyse language samples from multiple authors and then determine which author’s language matches the disputed text the most. Two popular pieces of literature where this technique has been used are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.4
Since the need for Forensic Linguists is constantly growing, there are several universities with established undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in this field. The best known in UK is Aston University in Birmingham and its Centre for Forensic Linguistics which also organises an annual week-long Summer School for students and linguists who are interested in the area. Cardiff University also offers a Postgraduate Diploma in Forensic Linguistics and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona is the first and the only university in Continental Europe which offers an MA programme in FL. A relatively new but gaining larger popularity MA programme at Hofstra University New York in the USA aims to “meet a growing demand for advanced training in scientific language analysis”5. These programmes are particularly good for learning how to analyse written text material.
For students interested in working with spoken language, one of the oldest and best places to study is the Forensic Speech Science programme offered at the University of York in England. Here, students receive advanced training in how speech is produced, how to use modern technology to analyse speech, and what methods are applied to analyse recorded speech to provide important court evidence. To help students gain practice in real-life cases, the University of York works closely with JP French Associates. This private company provides first-class language analysis for law enforcement agencies around the world, from the FBI to Scotland Yard.
Several associations and societies bring together forensic linguists and other professionals who work with language as evidence. To mention some of the most established ones:
The International Association of Forensic Linguistics brings together linguists who work mainly with language and the law and are involved in activities described in the previous sections. They meet every second year at a conference in order to exchange experience in the field.
In Germany, The Germanic Society for Forensic Linguistics (GSFL) is an organisation consisting of a large group of forensic linguistic experts, social scientists, and practitioners who are involved in the field not only in Germany, but also in all countries where a Germanic language is spoken (e.g. the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, etc.). Particularly important for the GSFL is the engagement of students with emerging scholars, who according to the President of the society, Dr. I. M. Nick, are the new generation of forensic linguists and language experts.6
The International Association for Forensic Phonetics and Acoustics focuses on spoken language evidence. It gathers practitioners, computer specialists and linguists who work mainly with spoken data and help the police and the court to identify voices or analyse videos, audio recordings, telephone calls, etc.
Forensic Linguistics is one of the fastest growing fields within Applied Linguistics. Its relevance for law and justice practices makes it a very important and interesting area of science. The diversity of disciplines and the possibilities for research as well as its relation to allied disciplines such as Sociolinguistics, Psychology, Pragmatics, Sociology and Law draw the attention and establish its popularity among young scholars and practitioners even more. Maybe, you are one of the next generation linguist experts in the field of Forensic Linguistics?
Very special thanks go to Dr. Stefanie Pohle for her tremendous support and patience throughout the whole project and to Dr. I. M. Nick for her editing contribution on this particular post.
1. Coulthard, Malcolm and Alison Johnson (2010): An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Language in Evidence. London and New York: Routledge, p. 5
2. Coulthard, Malcolm and Alison Johnson (eds.) (2013): The Routledge Handbook of Forensic Linguistics, London and New York: Routledge, p. 7
4. Olsson, John (2009): Word Crime: Solving Crime Through Forensic Linguistics. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, pp. 22-34
Coulthard, Malcolm and Alison Johnson (2010): An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Language in Evidence. London and New York: Routledge.
Coulthard, Malcolm and Alison Johnson (eds.) (2013): The Routledge Handbook of Forensic Linguistics. London and New York: Routledge.
Olsson, John (2009): Word Crime: Solving Crime Through Forensic Linguistics. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Other interesting sources:
Fobbe, Eilika (2011): Forensische Linguistik: Eine Einführung. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto.
Solan, Lawrence M. and Peter M. Tiersma (2005): Speaking of Crime: The Language of Criminal Justice. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Polyglot Conference (2015, November 25). Dr. Rob Leonard – The Groundbreaking Science of Forensic Linguistics
. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-01uO3uTrgk&t=2081s, (8:22 – 9:00)
(NOTE: If the authors have indicated their real names at the beginning or end of the post, please substitute the pseudonyms accordingly.)