CSI: Language Analysis Unit; Forensic Linguists Solve Crime Using English Mastery

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

CSI: Language Analysis Unit; Forensic Linguists Solve Crime Using English Mastery


Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The term "forensic linguistics" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. A description of the field - the science of human language applied to all aspects of law - isn't much easier, given the kind of tools to be found in a professional linguist's kit.

As outlined by Roger Shuy, an emeritus professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who is considered the "father of forensic linguistics" in this country, these include knowing the patterning of speech sounds in language (phonology), how words are put together (morphology), how words fit together to make sentences (syntax), and how sentences go together, which, in certain instances, involves knowing who introduces a topic (discourse).

Other tools touch on the meaning of words (semantics) as well as the conveyed meaning of words, which often is separate from what is found in a dictionary (pragmatics), and the changing nature and variability of language. The latter includes the realm of dialects.

Then apply these to all forms of communication, written and oral, to get an idea of the number of specialties and subspecialties in the field.

Most forensic linguists are consultants called upon to apply their expertise in all types of civil and criminal cases where they look primarily "for patterns and inconsistencies in patterns," Margaret van Naerssen, a professor at Immaculata University, told a Smithsonian Associates' audience this past fall. Her lecture was titled "Can Words Help Solve a Crime?" by way of qualifying forensic linguists' scope. Handwriting analysis to determine a personality profile is not their business, she emphasized, nor do they deal with the physical aspects of a document or recording.

They do, however, in Mr. Shuy's words, "make documents understandable."

Profiling of any kind makes these professionals uneasy. Instead, as Ms. van Naerssen says, "a lot of what we do helps point to characteristics."

"We are language scientists and try to apply our knowledge to legal questions," says Robert A. Leonard, a linguistics professor at Hofstra University who is head of the firm Robert Leonard Associates. He also is co-founder of the rock group Sha Na Na and an expert in Swahili.

"We are tremendous consumers of language," he adds. Qualifications for the job, he says, include having a "broad knowledge of the world" and a graduate degree in linguistics.

Common sense helps, as does an awareness that, in his words, "so much of language is not under our control. ... Forensic scientists look for deeper structures even when someone is trying to masquerade as someone else."

He cites a stalker/serial murder case he worked on in which anonymous letters were written to throw police off the scent. Detection hinged on recognizing the similar use of an unusual rhetorical device in the letters.

Matters can be as simple as knowing that a fourth-grade dropout is unlikely to write a purported written confession to police containing the words "this perpetrator then approached my vehicle," and as complicated as recognizing the existence of individual dialects and geographical disparities in certain words or phrases that aren't always in the dictionary. Thus, a strip of land beside a street curb may be known variously as a "tree box," a "county strip" or a "devil strip."

"You have to know the context," notes Mr. Leonard. "There is no meaning without context."

"When you face a law case, you don't know which tools you will need; it could be syntax in one, phonology in another; sometimes you just puzzle through," says Mr. Shuy, who has worked with the FBI on the Unabomber case, among other high-profile investigations. His latest book, from Oxford University Press, is "Creating Language Crimes: How Law Enforcement Uses (and Misuses) Language. …

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CSI: Language Analysis Unit; Forensic Linguists Solve Crime Using English Mastery
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