FORENSIC LINGUISTICS.

Never heard of it, but there’s a book about it, Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language in the Justice System, by John Gibbons, and it sounds like it could be interesting. (Via Road to Surfdom, who also links to an anticipation-raising article about the new Patrick O’Brian movie, for those who are as addicted as I am to his magnificent novels.)

Comments

  1. I’ve heard something positive about this book since I mentioned it in a forensic linguistics entry on September 19th http://www.margaret-marks.com/Transblawg/archives/000388.html – mind you, part of what I heard is that it deals inter alia with translation.
    I mentioned the Forensic Linguistics list again on October 22 fwiw:
    http://www.margaret-marks.com/Transblawg/archives/000493.html

  2. There is a seemingly different discipline which also goes under the title of Forensic Linguistics, that revolves around a scientific method for figuring out who wrote what by looking for “literary footprints” – the statistical vocabulary choices, unique grammar and punctuation habits, etc., that are unique to everybody. Most of the credit for the establishment of this as a serious discipline goes to Vassar English professor Don Foster (or at least according to the Smithsonian article I read a couple of years ago). Am I off target, Margaret?
    (i’ll bet you’re gonna tell me it is the same discipline, it’s been around for a while, and don foster’s contribution is over-hyped. ;))

  3. Hmm … this brings to mind (and you probably know of it) that in 1968 , Swedish linguist Jan Svartvik was able to show that the confession statement of one Timothy Evans, charged with the murders of his wife an child in London in 1950, most likely was not authentic. The part of the statement where Evans confessed the murders was clearly different from other parts.
    Evans was hanged in 1950. And of course, three years later, after the discover of several more bodies at the house were Evans lived – 10 Rillington Place – John Christie was also hanged…
    The story is in David Crystal’s “The english language” (1988), p.130.

  4. I know some linguistic anthropologists who’ve been asked to provide “expert testimony” in court cases…
    There is also an interesting body of work devoted to the study of language in the courtroom. Susan Philips Ideology in the Language of Judges is one such book.

  5. Jason, you give me too much credit. I belong to the Forensic Linguistics list because it has to do with law and language, but I’m not a linguistics person – I keep meaning to read some linguistics, but never get round to it.
    Still, it sounds a bit the same.Forensic linguists as on that list are expert witnesses in all sorts of cases involving language, for instance I remember in the Winston Silcott case in England the police had forged a confession using uneducated supposedly black speech that was quite different to what Silcott spoke.
    One of the forensics linguist list people, Peter French, was the expert in the coughing trial in England recently, where a contestant was helped to win one million pounds on the quiz show by coughing from another person waiting to be a contestant.
    I had forgotten Evans or didn’t know about the speech part of the testimony. There’s a great film of 10 Rillington Place.

  6. I have enquired on the Forensic Linguistics list about Don Foster. I can’t say very much since I don’t want to make a mistake in recounting it. What does Foster call his work? It may be stylistics, including forensic stylistics. It is not the same as forensic linguistics, apparently. BTW, you can actually search inside the book at the Amazon sitem, as you probably know. Difficult to say who created forensic linguistics, but – as an example – Roger Shuy (www.rogershuy.com) is very important and was working in the area, as were others, before Don Foster became involved in applying his skills to law enforcement.’ Foster comes from a literary analysis background rather than a linguistics one.
    There are others apart from Roger Shuy – for instance, Hannes Kniffka in Europe.
    I hope this is of some help.

  7. Further to my last comment, and I hope this really is the last: private mails not sent to me apparently query whether there is a basic distinction between forensic linguistics and Don Foster’s stylistics work. One suggests that forensic stylometry is an area of forensic linguistics. OTOH, stylistics-related courses would be held in departments of literature, not linguistics. So, like everything else, this is just another can of worms (as you say over there).

  8. As a forensic linguist I find many (but not all) of the comments on this page quite fascinating. I suppose about as fascinating as a geneticist would find the comments of a group of forensic linguists who knew little or nothing about genetics. I’m particularly amused that people should think of Don Foster as a ‘forensic linguist’. He certainly did some clever attribution stuff and has a ‘theory’ that we all use language uniquely, but he has published – to my knowledge – absolutely nothing on the subject. Unfortunately there are those in the FBI who think he’s an expert. It’s a joke. Some of your comments on this page were quite good. You correctly point out that a lot of this started with Jan Svartvik, and you correctly point out that people like Gerald McMenamin and Roger Shuy are very impressive in what they do, as is Kniffka. Do drop by my site at any time. I did a lot of work on the language surrounding Andrew Gilligan’s claims about his ‘source’, also analyses of the ‘anthrax’ envelopes, the men accused of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, etc.

  9. Thanks — I knew we’d hear from a real forensic linguist eventually!

  10. Hello, all. I’m delighted that I found this site.
    I’m a forensic linguist (PhD, University of Chicago). I do both copyright and authorship work, and I’ve had quite a few interesting cases. I’ll probably be going to LA later this month to testify.
    I agree that Don Foster is not the real thing. He draws all kinds of indirect literary parallels on the basis of puns, allusions, subconscious references, and other matters that real linguists do not deal with. He psychloigizes about his subjects.
    As Professor McMenamin has pointed out, he becomes fascinated with his own media glory (whereas in reality he’s a classic case of being in the right place at the right time, with his timely identification a new Shakespearean sonnet right at the time when people were wondering about the author of “Primary Colors”); he vacillates wiith circumstances(instead of gathering data to confirm or support a hypothesis); he gets the linguistics wrong, and, worst of all, he takes credit for inventing a field that is hundreds of years old and had already been used in many legal cases.
    Forensic linguistics, correctly practiced, is part art and part science. As Rogey Shuy has pointed out, it is good linguistics practiced within a legal context. What I report to my clients is not literary or abstruse. It involves specific linguistic data and my impartial evaluation of them.
    Best regards to all…and comments welcome.
    Alan

  11. Hello, all. I’m delighted that I found this site.
    I’m a forensic linguist (PhD, University of Chicago). I do both copyright and authorship work, and I’ve had quite a few interesting cases. I’ll probably be going to LA later this month to testify.
    I agree that Don Foster is not the real thing. He draws all kinds of indirect literary parallels on the basis of puns, allusions, subconscious references, and other matters that real linguists do not deal with. He psychologizes about his subjects.
    As Professor McMenamin has pointed out, he becomes fascinated with his own media glory (whereas in reality he’s just a classic case of being in the right place at the right time, with his timely identification of a new Shakespearean sonnet right at the time when people were wondering about the author of “Primary Colors”); he vacillates with circumstances(instead of gathering data to confirm or support a hypothesis); he gets the linguistics wrong, and, worst of all, he takes credit for inventing a field that is hundreds of years old and had already been used in many legal cases.
    Forensic linguistics, correctly practiced, is part art and part science. As Rogey Shuy has pointed out, it is good linguistics practiced within a legal context. What I report to my clients is not literary or abstruse. It involves specific linguistic data and my impartial evaluation of them.
    Best regards to all…and comments welcome.
    Alan

  12. Hello!
    I hope my questions are not too inappropriate: Can anybody tell me when “forensic linguistic” was born? When did the first forensic linguist appear in court?
    Thank you very much…
    carla

  13. You mention a recent book out on forensic linguistics. You might also like to know about my own book: Forensic Linguistics: An introduction to language, crime and the Law, by Continuum, details at the link provided. My own website is at http://www.thetext.co.uk

  14. -with all due respect. Don Foster does not claim to have invented forensic lingusitics. I would expect more from a PhD. There is this tool called ‘google’ wherein you can construct searches such as Don Foster forensics. Then simly ctrl f on all your hits and then perhaps repost

  15. Aslam Rasoolpuri says:

    I am an advocate and linguist from Pakistan .I thik forensic linguistics is very useful knowledge of this age in so-called justice ,because justice is myth,perhaps this science give it a reality

  16. To S. Shaw:
    Please see Foster’s own book, Author Unknown, p. 5: “I was now [1996] presented with a fresh challenge: to develop a science of literary forensics…”.
    This statement, plus failure to acknowledge the vast body of forensic linguistic research and application, supports my claim (shared by Prof. McMenamin).
    Alan Perlman, PhD

  17. Ann-Marie Simmonds says:

    can someone tell me where to find schools where one can actually study forensic linguistics, even as a minor? i notice that it is not a very popular field. perhaps someone with a phd in linguistics could tell me which programs even have courses in the area or which subfields (semantics, pragmatics etc) i should look at in order to attain a good foundation for forensic linguistics.

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