Category: forensic linguistics

Forensic linguistics is the application of linguistic tools and techniques to the resolution of legal issues. (“Forensic” means ‘of the forum,’ i.e., the court’).   It consists of many sub-disciplines. Some forensic linguists use computers or statistics. I specialize in four areas — see home page. The term is loosely and popularly used for one sub-discipline — authorship identification. In this blog I bow to popular usage and use forensic linguistics to mean ‘authorship analysis.’

“You have the right to remain silent…”: On understanding the Miranda warning (it’s not so easy)

The famous Miranda warning – “you have the right to remain silent…” — is actually very difficult to understand, especially for non-native speakers, who often give up their rights without knowing what they are.

1. You have the right to remain silent.
2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
3. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you while you are being questioned.
4. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning, if you wish one.
(After the warning and in order to secure a waiver, the following questions should be asked and an affirmative reply secured to each question.)
1. Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you?
2. Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to me now?

FAQ’s about forensic linguistics

(from Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics, by Gerald R. McMenamin, CRC Press, 2002).

Q: What is the role of the analyst’s intuition?

A: Intuition is the analyst’s use of his or her own judgment to discover linguistic variation and suggest initial hypotheses to investigate. As a speaker or writer of the language and as a linguist, the analyst uses introspection to start the process of analysis. Lakoff comments, on the use of introspection and informal observation that, “… any procedure is at some point introspective…” (Lakoff, 19705:5). A good discussion of the methodological role of intuition in linguistic research can be found in B. Johnstone, Qualitative Methods in Sociolinguistics, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.

Basic Forensic Linguistic Skills: How Text Sensitive Are You?

A forensic linguist must be exquisitely sensitive to nuances of text.  Where a synonym exists, the very choice of each word represents a decision on the part of the author.  Superimposed upon that is the way the word is spelled, abbreviated or capitalized. Truly, a text is a tangle of choices.

The following are intended to test your potential as a forensic linguist. There are two exercises from Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language, Crime and the Law, by John Olsson (New York: Continuum, 2004).

(1) From page 193:

Note ALL peculiarities in the following text.

Meaning, Authorship, and Originality: Insights from Forensic Linguistics Presentation to Association of Document Examiners, November 8, 2009

When does a lawyer need a linguist?

More basically, what is a linguist?

There are many different kinds, dozens of areas of emphasis.  Ultimately one becomes one’s own kind of linguist, depending on where one’s interest and preferences lead.

I’m always interested in real data – not interested in voguishly Chomskian sterile theorizing.  My honors thesis was a study of African-American dialect in the fiction of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and others.

My doctoral thesis was an analysis of actual speech data (Hawaiian English), recorded, as spontaneous as it could be with an observer present.  The social sciences are a clear case of observer influence – you don’t have to resort to quantum physics to see it.

Letter to the Editor of the New Yorker

The latest New Yorker has a very informative and thorough piece on forensic linguistics, in the print version and at .

The following is my letter to the editor:

Dear Editor,

As a practicing forensic linguist (since 1979; I have a PhD in linguistics from the University of Chicago and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown, also in linguistics), I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the profession – but with mixed feelings.