Forensic Linguistics

Manila Bulletin, November 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Forensic Linguistics


THERE is a new subfield of linguistics - the scientific study of language - that has attracted attention and it is called Forensic Linguistics (or FL).

In a recent summer school held for the first time in Asia, I was fortunate to study under Prof. Malcolm Coulthard of Aston University, United Kingdom, and Prof. John Gibbons of Monash University, Australia. Together they founded the professional organization for FL in 1993 and they subsequently headed the International Association of Forensic Linguists (IAFL), an organization of forensic linguists and researchers worldwide.

Profs. Coulthard and Gibbons brought the first training on FL to Asia last July in collaboration with Dr. Azirah Hashim of the University of Malaya under the auspices of the International Summer School in Forensic Linguistic Analysis (ISSFLA). While this subfield has been explored in European countries and the US for some time now, it is just catching the attention of scholars in Asia. The University of Santo Tomas, which I represented during the training, is a lead institution from the Philippines that intends to offer the course as part of its graduate degree program.

What exactly is FL? It can be described as the study of legal texts and the nature of legal language. Specifically, it is concerned with the study of legal language practices, investigative interviewing, and interpreting issues. Simplistically, we can say that FL describes how language is used in the courtroom. As such, it seeks to analyze the use of language for the purpose of law enforcement as well as the use of language in legal and forensic contexts. The themes for research written about this area often deal with sex, violence, crime, and suicide.

So what do forensic linguists do? They study the written language of the law, such as statutes, contracts, temporary restraining orders, and even police caution as in the case of Britain, and jury instructions as in the case of the US.

Spoken language of the legal process is also analyzed in police interviews, courtroom interaction, and the testimonies of vulnerable witnesses. Bomb threats, obscene phone calls, recorded criminal interaction, suicide notes, letters, e-mails, wills, text messages, and plagiarism are good sources of language evidence. It is important to underscore the fact that in the whole legal process, lawyers usually focus on accuracy while laymen and linguists focus on communicability. What complicates the situation is that in courts where local languages are used, translation problems come to the fore. To top it all, interviews and interrogations are sometimes not recorded, and courts may rely heavily on the output of the interpreter and/or stenographer.

According to Prof. Coulthard, many studies have shown the power of lawyers' closing speeches and the disadvantaged position of lay people when representing themselves in court. It is the task of the forensic linguist to uncover the ways power and dominance are employed in legal contexts.

Two of the most frequent types of cases in FL involve disputed meanings and questioned authorship. Disputed meanings are often transcripts of undercover police surveillance. One can say that there is really no dispute over who said what and what was said, but there may be opposing interpretations of the statements. …

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