What is forensic linguistics?

The purposes of language go far beyond communication; it can be used to affect or change how people think and behave.

Forensic linguistics is concerned with every aspect of language and the law.

…linguistics is virtually invisible to most people…Just as physicians are trained to see things in an X-ray that the average person with excellent vision cannot see, so linguists are trained to see and hear structures that are invisible to the lay person.

Roger Shuy, xvii, Language Crimes

A forensic linguist is sometimes a general practitioner and sometimes a specialist  in any of a number of sub-areas within the science. If you are a Shakespeare scholar, questions of authorship might interest you.  If your interest is in phonetics, then voice identification might appeal. A conversational analyst might be interested in the detection of emergency hoax calls…

John Olsson. p. 4. Forensic Linguistics

The law, as the eminent linguist Roger Shuy has observed, is “overwhelmingly about language,” whether it’s the language of court proceedings, of laws and regulations themselves, of threats, ransom notes, police reports, anonymous emails, texts or posts, allegedly plagiarized writings…in sum, all of the many kinds of written and audio/video texts involved in legal cases.
Thus, linguistics, the study of language itself, is often helpful in clarifying the issues in a case (e.g., how do you tell if something is plagiarized or if one trademark is too similar to another?)

Anyone know what “forensic” means?

Let’s start with some clarifications and definitions.
So…anyone out there know what “forensic” means?  You hear it every day.  But I’ll bet most people don’t know  that it means ‘of or before the Forum, i.e., the Court).’  It’s a strange adjective formation, so the root is not recognizable.  I’ve heard people use it to mean “scientific.”  It is that, but that’s not what the word means.

What is forensic linguistics?

“Forensic linguistics” is a broad range of disciplines that apply the tools and techniques of linguistics to help resolve legal issues. In popular usage, the phrase is often narrowly applied to document interpretation and author identification, probably because of the high-profile criminal cases that involve anonymous or questionable writings — Son of Sam, Zodiac killer, JonBenet Ramsey ransom note, Unabomber.
But there are countless other cases, with both written and recorded data, involving threats, police reports and interrogations, ransom demands, illegal agreements, sting-operation text messages, and other language-related legal issues.
What exactly was agreed to in the contract or prenup?  Does a text contain evidence of veracity or fabrication?  Of plagiarism? Did the sting target actually “entice” or “coerce” the undercover officer?  What are the differences between two accounts of the same event?  Who is writing these derogatory anonymous posts?  These are the kinds of questions that linguists deal with and are well-qualified to answer.
Many forensic linguists operate with huge corpora of data, analyzed via statistics and computers. I use the traditional qualitative methods in which I was trained. They still work, they are theoretically and empirically peer-validated, and they have the advantage of being easily understood by lawyers and laymen alike.
I specialize in four sub-areas, as explained below.

Career phases

First, the personal part. I’m marking my 40th year in linguistics. My career falls into three phases (they overlap — I’m not 120).

Linguistics I…

…was the academic part: I observed language usage and language change, analyzed them, noted how my observations supported this or that theory, and wrote, published and delivered papers for academic audiences. My dissertation was a study of code-switching in Hawaiian English.

For a year, I was President of the Michigan Linguistic Society.  In my opening address, I warned linguists that they need to stay relevant and offer public opinion on language manipulation and abuses, which today are all around us.  What’s your pronoun?   To their shame, they have not done so.

I taught linguistics and English composition, most recently at Wayne State (Detroit MI), including a graduate-level course in style.  My interests were and are wide-ranging.  I co-authored a paper about jazz and language; 30 years later, it gets 124,000 hits.

Linguistics II…

began when I left academia. I call this phase “Language in Action”: the audiences for my work (mostly speeches but also books and articles) were much wider — and there were consequences. People paid attention, newspapers quoted the speeches, and, in some small way, attitudes, feelings and behavior were affected.  One of my speeches actually appeared in Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me.”

Linguistics III,

“Language in Conflict,” is what this site is about — legal and personal disputes rooted in language. I employ the tools and techniques of linguistics to support or refute a particular hypothesis.
In phase III, money and other forms of compensation are involved in the answers to questions I deal with — what a particular sentence or paragraph really means (insofar as it can be determined); who the author of an anonymous document might be; whether a trademark is protected or infringed upon; and, a real growth category over the last few years, whether similar passages are evidence of plagiarism.

Growth category

Plagiarism is a growth category because of over-reliance on turnitin and other electronic tools which purport to — but really do NOT — detect plagiarism. Similar words and sentences do not prove plagiarism. One must always ask: How original is the source material?
I am constantly baffled by the way academics unquestioningly accept machine results and destroy an  entire career without ever proving dishonesty. Somewhere out there, there’s a class action suit waiting to be brought, seeking huge sums in compensation for careers and reputations falsely damaged.

Taking sides

Along with I,II, and III, I practice language advocacy, typically around issues of political correctness and control through language.
I will always be a staunch opponent of people who choose to be offended by mere words. And people who make up whole new sets of pronouns to reflect dozens of exquisitely defined gender categories — they’ll always be good for a laugh.
As always, I welcome questions and comments.
#linguistics #forensiclinguistics #language expert #linguistics expert