Whodunit?: Bringing justice with forensic linguistics

Today I am interviewing Joseph Devney, a forensic linguist in California.

Hello Joe. First of all, please tell us what a forensic linguist does. Frankly, when I hear the word "forensic", I tend to associate it with autopsies, fingerprints, and dental records. How does linguistics fit in with this?

Your first instinct is correct. The “forensic” part refers to examining evidence in an investigation. And that is the narrow meaning of the term: linguistic analysis of evidence in court or in a police investigation.

But it has a broader meaning that is a more accurate description of the breadth of the field. It covers the intersection of language and law. In fact, some people use the term “language and law” instead because it reflects this perspective better.

This broader definition is preferred in the field, because it includes the things that are actually discussed by researchers and practitioners. Not just evidence in trials, but things like jury instructions, detecting plagiarism, the strategies used in police interviews, and interpreting statutory language. Any situation in which language studies and the law intersect.

The International Association of Forensic Linguists has members who know about these areas and more. (www.iafl.org)

Do you work with the written or the spoken word? Which is more challenging to analyze and decode?

I came to linguistics from a career as a writer. So I am more comfortable with the written word. But I can work from recordings and transcripts. With recordings, of course, some words or even full sentences can be unclear. Still, if at all possible, I would want access to the original audio recording, rather than trusting that someone else’s transcript is accurate enough.

Linguists pay closer attention to the details of language use than most people. To a linguist, a pause, or a filler word like “um,” can be significant if I am performing discourse analysis. We want to make sure that those things are captured in the transcript. And that utterances that are unclear are noted in the transcript that way as well.

There is a sister discipline, though, called forensic phonetics. The study of phonetics is part of linguistics, but these people specialize in analyzing voices and speech and audio recordings rather than the written word. They know a lot about how the sounds of speech are formed in the vocal tract.

The forensic phoneticians have their own professional organization, the International Association for Forensic Phonetics and Acoustics. (www.iafpa.net)

What are the areas of law you deal with?