Forensic Linguistics

My friends and I have now read and discussed the first part of Introducing Forensic Linguistics by Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson.

It is written by Alison Johnson, who is a senior police officer as well as a linguist. This part describes and explains the peculiar qualities of the language used in legal institutions, arguing that what seems to the layman to be unnecessarily complex and verbose language has to be so, as the law has to cover all the possibilities.

One of the most interesting points to come out of the analysis of the language used in all stages of the legal process is the “hybrid” nature of many the texts, both written and spoken. For instance, the written statements of plaintiffs, defendants and witnesses produced in court are the result of a lengthy process of interviews, repeated stories, writing down of statements, recorded interviews etc. In the end the mechanics of producing something for judge and jury to deliberate upon – namely written statements in a folder – determines the nature of the final documents.

We learned many things we did not know about the legal system. For instance, the calling in of the emergency services by telephone (which often is the start of a legal process) is mediated by a telephonist who has to tick boxes on a computer before making a decision about whether to call one of the services.

We are moving on to the second part of the book, which describes the “toolkit” which the forensic linguist has to draw on, if asked to give expert linguistic evidence.

What is clear is that the use of linguistics in examining legal texts is very new and being invented as linguists, both here and in the USA, are called upon to give opinions.

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