Forensic linguistics

Elisabeth Carter
Table of contents

Broadly defined, forensic linguistics is concerned with all points at which language and the law intersect and “draws on the scientific study of language to solve forensic problems” (McMenamin 2002: 41). Forensic linguistic work can approach language and the law from a range of perspectives; language-oriented (see Solan 1993; Tiersma 1999; Solan & Tiersma 2005), law-oriented (Gibbons 2003), with a social scientific approach (Conley & O’Barr 2005), with a focus on methodological developments, or from one that seeks to improve the quality of forensic linguistic evidence including its dissemination to courtroom and other legal audiences. Forensic linguistics as a discipline that also links up with wider concepts and themes such as ethics, power and vulnerability, and the inherent conflict within legal systems across the world between securing a conviction and protecting the rights of suspects, victims and witnesses. Much like many other interdisciplinary areas of linguistics and social sciences, forensic linguistics is not defined by the use of any one particular methodological framework; rather the most appropriate framework is applied to the type of data, the context in which it sits and the purpose of the analysis. The development of appropriate analytic techniques, or the modification of existing ones, is itself part of the work within the discipline. A feature of forensic linguistic research is that it is generally applied research that is used to examine interactional practices, to understand more about language and its use and application, or inform practice in some way. It is sometimes referred to as a branch of applied linguistics, and the nomenclatures applied linguistics and forensic linguistics are at times used interchangeably. Although there are no clear differentiating factors on methodological, conceptual or theoretical levels between applied and forensic linguistics, a key difference between the two is the latter’s specific focus on “the application of linguistic knowledge to a particular social setting, namely the legal forum (from which the word forensic is derived)” (Olsson 2008: 3).

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