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.
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…
Is a contract provision binding if its meaning is indeterminate or ambiguous?
At various places on this site, you’ll find somewhat abstract descriptions of the services I offer. But what kinds of cases do I actually get involved in? Examples follow (current cases excluded).
In three of my specialties, I’m about equally divided between Plaintiff and Defendant. In cases of alleged academic plagiarism, I represent the Defendant, who typically has not committed plagiarism, even by the university’s own rules. In cases of literary plagiarism, I represent Plaintiffs who believe that their work has been copied.
Our society is divided by many conflicting forces, but two of them are in our face almost all the time, roiling America like the whirling blades of the old MixMaster – and causing just as much confusion.
Both are related to the field in which I was trained – linguistics. Both center on language – not surprising, since language is a multi-purpose tool without which we would not be human.
I think of them as two mega-issues, each with a constellation of sub- and intersecting issues.
Perhaps 25% of the cases I handle involve the authorship of anonymous, disputed, or forged documents. The client wants to know who’s writing those nasty, threatening emails or letters. I typically ask the client for writing samples from the suspected author. Sometimes there’s more than one suspect, and I have to decide which of them may be the author of the anonymous document(s).
A forensic linguist who practices stylistic analysis 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).
Roger Shuy, one of the most preeminent forensic linguists, notes that the interpretation and application of the law are overwhelmingly about language. Thus, there are many situations in which the expertise of a linguist – someone trained in the precise description and analysis of language (but not necessarily a person who knows many languages) – can make substantial contributions to a case. The linguist can provide evidence one way or the other. Or he/she can clarify the linguistic principles, problems, and processes that the case involves.