Jobs You Won't See on CSI: Forensic Linguist

by Russ Stover
Everyone has seen CSI, NCIS, and their clones and from them the average viewer may get the mistaken impression that all investigations need are a medical examiner, a quirky scientist, and a team of investigators who are very good looking. However, in the real world there are many other people in a myriad of jobs whose work all goes in to finding justice.
What is it?
This time we are talking about forensic linguistics. The term forensic linguistics was first used in the 1960s in terms of statement analysis. Statements made to police by witnesses, and the police who record, transcribe, or interpret these statements are far from perfect. The timeline is often mixed up with a lot of backtracking and self editing by the witnesses. And then there is the chance they are wrong, or worse-lying. Early applications of forensic linguistics include the understanding of Miranda Rights after Miranda v. Arizona mandated that people being arrested be advised of their rights. Another application in civil law is how words can be trademarked and copyrighted which started with McDonald's adding Mc to everything starting in the 1970s.
Forensic linguists are used in the investigation of a wide variety of crimes: drugs, espionage, organized crime, just about any kind of crime (Languageandlaworg). They are used for:
  • voice recognition and identification (forensic phonetics) which is the matching of voices, say a threatening voice on a phone call to a suspect
  • veracity analysis which is the use of language to determine if a person was being truthful
  • dialectology, the determination through language of where a person is from, or has lived or was educated
  • proficiency, knowing whether a person understands the legal language used in being arrested and tried
  • discourse analysis, the study of conversations to determine who is introducing a topic and whether the person understands the wording used is describing an illegal act that they are agreeing to
Forensic linguists are used to analyze emergency calls listening for tone, speed, hesitation and other indicators of a false call, or one being used as a set up or alibi. They are used in looking at suicide notes to determine if the note is really by the victim or if it was made under duress or even by another person. They can also be used to analyze surveillance tapes, court records, and many other uses (Olsson, 2004 and Gibbons, 2003).
Forensic linguists use a large database of suicide notes, ransom letters, police records, statements and others (called the corpora) as a base for comparison of new evidence.
There are several famous cases that show the use of forensic linguistics:
In 1892 Helen Keller was accused of plagiarizing the story The Front King which in turn was found to have been plagiarized from the book Frost Fairies by Margaret Canby. It was shown that Keller merely changed common phrases to those used less often in colloquial American English. Another famous case was The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon and novelist Robert Graves. Like Keller Condon expanded the original's more simple language but was found to be guilty only of "borrowing". Martin Luther King, Jr. was found to have plagiarised much of his doctoral dissertation changing some names and using more "alliteration and assonance". Probably the most famous example is the role of forensic linguistics in the apprehension of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. His 35,000 word manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future was published by several major newspapers which spurred his brother to take his concerns about his brother Ted to the FBI. A search of Kaczynski's cabin found rough drafts of the manifesto which had many commonalities of language to the final product (Coulthard and Johnson, 2007).
Education and Training
Forensic linguists are first linguists. There are several colleges and universities with linguistics programs with classes in semantics, phonetics, grammar, etc. There are some schools that specialize in forensic linguistics. Aston University in Birmingham has a full program as well as a summer intensive program. But that is just one of many such schools and classes. A minimum of a Master's degree is preferred by many employers. Also, many forensic linguists specialize in several foreign languages like Arabic, Russian, Chinese, and Spanish often requiring native speakers or even more education and travel.
Pay: forensic linguists, like podiatrists listed last time, are often employed full time in something else. In this case education and research so pay varies widely. However, as our society is becoming ever more litigious there is growth in the discipline especially in civil law concerning contracts and agreements.
Sources and Further Reading
Coulthard, M., & Johnson, A. (2007). An introduction to forensic linguistics: Language in evidence. Oxford: Routledge:162-3.

Gibbons, J. (2003). Forensic Linguistics: an introduction to language in the Justice System. Blackwell.


Olson, J. (2004). Forensic Linguistics. Continuum. pp. 31-36.
Wordcrime: Solving Crime Through Forensic Linguistics by John Olsson (May 1, 2009)

An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics by Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson (Dec 21, 2007)

An Immigrant's Run-in With the Law: A Forensic Linguistic Analysis (The New Americans: Recent Immigration and American Society) by Kristina Beckman (Oct 15, 2007)

Forensic Speaker Identification (International Forensic Science and Investigation) by Philip Rose (Jul 1, 2002)

International Assoc. of Forensic Linguists:

International Assoc. of Applied Linguistics:

International Journal of Language, Speech, and the Law:

International Assoc. for Forensic Phonetics and Acoustics:

List of Plagiarism Controversies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_plagiarism_controversies

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