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Forensic Linguistics: Applying The Science Of Linguistics To Issues Of The Law
As originally published in Hofstra Law Review, Vol. 45, 2017

By: Robert A. Leonard, PhD, et al
Tel: 516-477-3834
Email Dr. Robert Leonard

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lThe well-established science of linguistics analyzes all aspects of human language. Linguistics has many subfields, including the study of language structure, sound patterns, the dynamics of language in interpersonal and intergroup communication, and the interplay of meaning, grammar, and context.1 In academic departments it is often paired with other neighboring disciplines such as cognitive science.2

The branch of linguistics known as “forensic linguistics” applies the science of linguistic investigation to issues of the law.3 Forensic linguistics augments legal analysis by applying rigorous, scientifically accepted principles of language analysis to legal evidence such as e-mails, text messages, contracts, letters, confessions, and recorded speech.4

Linguists seek, as do other scientists, to explain the non-random distribution of data.5 Bullets do not randomly discharge from firearms, chemical concentrations do not randomly spread throughout a human body, and words are not randomly found to issue from the keyboards and mouths of speakers of English or any other language.6 Words adhere to patterns, and linguists are trained to identify, analyze, and explain these patterns.7 In common with all other sciences, linguists solve problems by constructing competing hypotheses and then testing which hypothesis best explains patterns found in the data.8

In legal systems, language is key.9 Through language we promulgate laws, issue subpoenas and warrants, question suspects, provide testimony, write contracts, and confess to crimes.10 All of these acts have significant consequences, and understanding the characteristics of the language used to perform them can often provide important insights.11 As biology and physics play crucial roles in the interpretation of medical and ballistic data, forensic linguistics offers comparable insights into the understanding of legally significant language data.12

The scientific analysis in which forensic linguists engage has been increasingly utilized:

Now linguists are applying their field’s knowledge to such areas as statutory law and interpretation, voice and authorship identification, jury instructions, the asymmetry of power in courtroom exchanges, lawyer-client communication, police interrogation practices, contract disputes, legal discourse, defamation, trademark infringement, courtroom interpretation and translation, copyright disputes, discrimination, commercial warning messages, and various types of criminal charges such as perjury, bribery, solicitation, money laundering, threatening, and fraud. Virtually all of such cases involve written or spoken language evidence, making linguistic analysis very relevant.13

In contract disputes, the meaning of individual words and phrases (as well as syntactic relations) can form issues of contention.14 In plagiarism cases, which are a subset of authorship analyses, the question is whether the text or content was lifted by a defendant from an author’s or company’s document (e.g., a novel, judicial opinion, screenplay, or patent application) onto another document without proper citation and passed off as the defendant’s own. In copyright cases, the linguistic issues can include not only straightforward borrowing of words but also copied discourse structure such as topic sequencing.15 In a related area of the law, trademark infringement cases regularly turn on linguistic similarities between a junior and a senior trademark (e.g., phonological analysis can demonstrate whether they sound similar, and semantic and pragmatic analysis can elucidate whether their meanings are similar.16 Even in cases of product liability, linguists can offer important testimony, for example, showing that the product had an insufficient, incomprehensible, or unreadable warning label). Roger W. Shuy of Georgetown University has demonstrated in several cases that while the usage instructions on a product were written clearly and precisely, the warning sections were imprecise, unclear, and ambiguous.17 Other types of cases in which linguistic analysis can be pivotal are discrimination and defamation cases where a defendant’s language use can be subjected to scrutiny, for example, regarding its meaning in context.18

The courts recognize the validity of the field of forensic linguistics and allow experts to offer testimony.19 The field is applicable to a wide range of cases and situations.20 Yet, regardless of its already extensive use, forensic linguistics is still an underutilized tool; it can be applied to virtually any case in which language could be considered evidence, and that of course covers many more cases than those in which it has presently been used.21

This Article focuses on criminal cases, presenting six examples in which language is important evidence, each case highlighting a different aspect of forensic linguistic analysis. The first case demonstrates the intelligence that can be harvested from close analysis of an author’s writing (or a person’s spoken language).22 The next two are authorship cases in which testimony or consultation for the prosecution sought to aid the jury in deciding whether the defendants authored certain documents.23 An analogous type of case follows, in which the hope of the defense was a mitigation of the death penalty.24 The final two are potential exoneration cases.25

Forensic LInguistic Profiling: Unabomber

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) sketch below and its behavioral profile of the Unabomber both were famously inaccurate, but the forensic linguistic profiling was quite accurate.26 The FBI sketch and a contemporaneous photograph of Theodore Kaczynski, who was convicted of being the Unabomber, are provided:

. . . Continue to read the footnotes and the rest of the article (PDF)

Robert A. Leonard, PhD, is a Linguistics and Language Analysis Expert with decades of experience in his field. Dr. Leonard is a Fulbright Fellow, Fellow of the Faculty of Columbia University, named Forensic Linguist of the Year by the GSFL, Teacher of the Year at Hofstra University, and Distinguished Faculty Lecturer at Hofstra. He founded and directs a fully accredited graduate program in Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra where he is a fully tenured Professor. Dr. Leonard provides expert analysis of Language Evidence. He has been qualified as an Expert in Linguistics, under Frye and under Daubert, in 14 States and six Federal District

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