What Is Forensic Linguistics?

"I am curious about the field of forensic linguistics. What is it, exactly, and is it a feasible career?"

asked by Brandi W. from Fairfax, VA

Forensic linguistics, aka legal linguistics speaks toward the usage of linguistic expertise, approaches and insights to the forensic perspective of the law, language, criminal investigation, and court procedure. It is a branch of applied linguistics, which identifies, explores, and provides answers to language-related everyday conundrums. Essentially, there are three areas of forensic linguistics:

The field of forensic linguistics is inconsistent in that it encompasses a variety of authorities and scientists in diverse areas of the discipline.

Forensic linguists are concerned with both solving crimes and freeing the wrongly accused. Among the areas of expertise are:

Author identification is a fascinating field but unfortunately, documents such as ransom notes, intimidating letters, etc… are normally not lengthy enough to make a definite connection.

A discourse analyst can provide useful information by, for example, pointing out that the suspect’s use of “I” instead of “we” could indicate that he or she was not involved in the conspiracy. Interestingly, linguists have also discerned that a response of “yeah” or “uh-huh” does not necessarily indicate that the person agrees. Rather, the person may simply be acknowledging that the other person had spoken. Courts are on the fence when it comes to allowing whether discourse analyses qualify as expert testimony. Either way, a discourse analyst is useful to the attorneys who prepare the cases.

Proficiency testing and dialectology are both tested and proven valid fields of linguistics. Undeniably, due to the impact of mass media and social mobility, dialects are becoming inarticulate and imprecise and frequently fuse characteristics. This is quite problematic for linguistic origin analyses. Determining the origin of someone through language or dialect is further complicated because a number of languages overlap borders or are spoken in several countries.

Police departments, attorneys and agencies such as the FBI frequently employ forensic linguists. It is a common prerequisite that a candidate pass a language proficiency test before signing on as an employee.

The hourly rate of pay for a forensic linguist is between $28.00 and $42.00. The FBI requires fluency in a foreign language, meaning the applicant is expected to be able to read, write, speak and understand the foreign language and have the ability to accurately interpret and express the topic of discussion.

A Ph.D. in linguistics is often required to work in the discipline. A doctorate degree curriculum provides the advanced preparation necessary in linguistic theory and research, to enable one to deliver a book-length dissertation prior to graduation.

Career Spotlight: Linguist

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