Forensics? Forensic linguistics?

What does the word “forensic” mean to you? And what on earth could forensic linguistics possibly be?

Let’s see what Mr. Google says about “forensic”:

  • relating to or denoting the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime
  • relating to courts of law
  • belonging to, used in, or suitable to the courts or to public discussion and debate
  • relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge (as of medicine or linguistics) to legal problems

So now you’re no longer confused — right?

Well, actually, you may just be more confused, as these four definitions don’t quite match the common conception of forensic evidence as popularized by television shows. Could it be that television is misleading us?

No, that’s impossible. Right?

When I was a kid — a kid without a TV, mind you — my understanding of the word “forensic” was skewed by the fact that my dad was a forensic psychiatrist, known in part for writing the book Forensic Psychiatry. In that book neither the author nor the publisher saw fit to define the word forensic explicitly; it was presumed that the intended readership knew full well what it meant. We’re talking about a first edition in 1952, a second edition in 1965, and a readership consisting of lawyers, doctors, and relevant court witnesses. In the period of 1952–1965 these people apparently knew the above definitions or equivalent ones, and didn’t limit themselves to crime labs that study chemical and physical evidence. So some of the chapters of my dad’s book had to do with criminal responsibility, alcoholism, addiction, juvenile courts, malingering, commitment, competency, civil rights, malpractice, medical testimony, and cross-examination, all of which lie in part in the intersection of medicine and law.

And what does all this have to do with linguistics? There is now a thriving subfield of linguistics known as “forensic linguistics,” as indicated in the fourth definition above. I have recently been listening to two fascinating podcasts that deal with this subfield, En Clair and Subtitle:

  • En Clair describes itself as “a podcast about forensic linguistics, literary detection, language mysteries, cryptography, codes, language and the law, linguistic crime, undeciphered languages, and more, from past to present.” What a delicious combination! Recent episodes have been a thorough explanation of the Enigma Cipher; as a teacher I have been especially struck by the decisions the presenter had to make in order to construct an explanation for a purely aural medium like podcasting, which is notably different from a standard classroom. Listen to an episode or two, and maybe you’ll be hooked.
  • Subtitle describes itself as “a new podcast about people and languages.” How broad can you get‽ [Note the interrobang.] Well, one recent fascinating episode provides an excellent illustration in the story of how the Unabomber was caught. In fact, if I had to pick a single example of forensic linguistics, that would be it. So listen to some of this podcast too.

Categories: Life, Linguistics