What is Forensic Linguistics?

What is Forensic Linguistics?

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What is Forensic Linguistics?

“Some linguists believe that it is possible to identify a person’s ‘linguistic fingerprint’, as unique as an actual fingerprint. That notion is heavily debated within linguistics, but it is certainly true that when we write, we unconsciously leave traces of our personality, place of origin and educational background.”

 The term, Forensic Linguistics was first coined by Swedish linguist Jan Svartvik in 1968 in his case study The Evans Statements: A case for Forensic Linguistics. In this study Svartvik analysed several statements supposedly made by Timothy John Evans, who was executed in 1950 for the murders of his wife and baby daughter. Svartvik demonstrated that there were a number of stylistic differences between the statements and this raised serious questions regarding their authorship.

Although there is evidence of questioning of language use in relation to legal contexts as far back as the Judgment of Solomon in the Bible, It is only recently that forensic linguistics has become established as a branch of applied linguistics in its own right. Therefore Forensic linguisticslegal linguistics, or language and the law, can be defined as the application of  linguistic knowledge, methods and insights to the forensic context of law, language, crime investigation, trial, and judicial procedure. It should be noted that this definition does not limit the use of forensic linguistics to the solving of crimes but can include the study of the language of the law, courtroom discourses and the language of legal documents such as wills etc.


In forensic linguistics, we often have to consider what a person meant in a communication: was a threat made, did a person intend to cause offence to someone? In a spoken interaction, we use body language, intonation, gestures and facial expressions to help the addressee understand what we intend to say. Consider intonation in the examples below:

I didn’t say you stole my purse. (someone else did)

I didn’t say you stole my purse. (I said something else)

I didn’t say you stole my purse. (I just thought it)

I didn’t say you stole my purse. (I said someone else stole it)

I didn’t say you stole my purse. (maybe borrowed it)

I didn’t say you stole my purse. (I said you stole someone else’s)

I didn’t say you stole my purse. (I said you stole something else)”

Each example is slightly different depending on which word you stress. It is this kind of subtle difference that is explored in Forensic Linguistics.

Our Course

NCC Homelearning have just released a dedicated Forensic Linguistics course which aims to introduce learners to the discipline of forensic linguistics using examples from real life cases.

Included in the courses are the following:

What is forensic Linguistics?
This provides learners with a historical background and contemporary context of forensic linguistics. Learners will explore the role of the forensic linguist within the legal system and the investigation of crime as well as gaining some understanding of the different disciplines employed within this area.

A framework for analysing language
It will refresh learners’ knowledge of basic structures of grammar and punctuation. It will also introduce concepts and terminology such as semantic and pragmatic meaning, lexical field, morphology and syntax as well as some linguistic sub-disciplines such as sociolinguistics, conversation theory and discourse analysis as well as related theorists.

Language of the Law
It will introduce learners to the unique way in which the law and legal documents are written. Learners will learn how the language of the law has developed in tandem with the historical development of the English language.  In addition, learners will concentrate of two types of written legal texts: Acts of Parliament and Wills.

Author identification/forensic stylistics
Some linguists believe that it is possible to identify a person’s ‘linguistic fingerprint’, as unique as an actual fingerprint. That notion is heavily debated within linguistics, but it is certainly true that when we write, we unconsciously leave traces of our personality, place of origin, educational background etc. In this module students will examine the notion of uniqueness by examining the work of linguists in cases such as Bridgewater Four case and the Derek Bentley appeal. Students will carry out authorship attribution tasks by comparing suspect documents to those of known writers. In addition, students will also examine the role of forensic stylistics in suspect profiling and will examine documents from criminal cases to explore what certain features might tell us about the writers.

Courtroom and police discourses
Learners will explore how power asymmetry is manifested in courtroom questioning as well as in police interviews.

  • In the courtroom
    In order to contextualise these discourses, students will explore the unique setting and formality of the courtroom in Britain as well as the structure of a trial. Students will examine the language of participants in famous trials to discover how power is wielded, who controls the questioning and the impact of question types on the answers given. Students will also consider the notion of whether in linguistics terms ‘we are all equal before the law’, with reference to the work of Diana Eades.
  • The police interview
    Students will examine the context of police interviews by considering police interview transcripts, both pre and post PACE (1984). They will analyse transcripts for turn taking and topic control as well as how recording of evidence affects the questioning process.

Language crimes
It introduces students to the notion of language itself as a crime. Students will be introduced to the laws related to slander, libel, hate crime, bribery, plagiarism etc and will examine and analyse a variety of texts to discuss how far they might be considered language crime.

Please find a link to our course below:

Nick Cooper
Nick is NCC's resident blog author and covers a range of subjects, including teaching and health & social care. NCC is an international learning provider with over 20 years’ experience offering learning solutions. To date, NCC has engaged with over 20,000 employers, and delivered quality training to over half a million learners.
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