What Are Forensic Linguistics?

Definition and Examples

The application of linguistic research and methods to the law, including evaluation of written evidence and the language of legislation. The term forensic linguistics was coined in 1968 by linguistics professor Jan Svartvik.


  • "The pioneer of forensic linguistics is widely considered to be Roger Shuy, a retired Georgetown University professor and the author of such fundamental textbooks as [Creating] Language Crimes. The field’s more recent origins might be traced to an airplane flight in 1979, when Shuy found himself talking to the lawyer sitting next to him. By the end of the flight, Shuy had a recommendation as an expert witness in his first murder case. Since then, he’s been involved in numerous cases in which forensic analysis revealed how meaning had been distorted by the process of writing or recording. In recent years, following Shuy’s lead, a growing number of linguists have applied their techniques in regular criminal cases . . .."
    (Jack Hitt, "Words on Trial." The New Yorker, July 23, 2012)

Applications of Forensic Linguistics

  • "Applications of forensic linguistics include voice identification, interpretation of expressed meaning in laws and legal writings, analysis of discourse in legal settings, interpretation of intended meaning in oral and written statements (e.g., confessions), authorship identification, the language of the law (e.g., plain language), analysis of courtroom language used by trial participants (i.e., judges, lawyers, and witnesses), trademark law, and interpretation and translation when more than one language must be used in a legal context." (Gerald R. McMenamin, Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics. CRC Press, 2002)
  • "On some occasions the linguist is asked to provide investigative assistance or expert evidence for use in Court. Within the linguistics literature there has been considerable focus on the rules for admission of authorship identification evidence to criminal prosecutions, but the role of the linguist in providing evidence is broader than this. Much of the evidence provided by linguists does not involve authorship identification, and the assistance a linguist may offer is not restricted to only providing evidence for criminal prosecution. Investigative linguists can be considered that portion of forensic linguistics which provides advice and opinions for investigative and evidential purposes." (Malcolm Coulhard, Tim Grant, and Krzystof Kredens, "Forensic Linguistics." The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics, ed. by Ruth Wodak, Barbara Johnstone, and Paul Kerswill. SAGE, 2011)

Problems Facing Forensic Linguists

  • "[There are] certain problems facing an insider forensic linguist. Eight such problems are:
1. short time limits imposed by a law case, as opposed to the more familiar time limits enjoyed in everyday academic pursuits;
2. an audience almost totally unfamiliar with our field;
3. restrictions on what we can say and when we can say it;
4. restrictions on what we can write;
5. restrictions on how to write;
6. the need to represent complex technical knowledge in ways that can be understood by people who know nothing of our field while maintaining our role as experts who have deep knowledge of these complex technical ideas;
7. constant changes or jurisdictional differences in the field of law itself; and
8. maintaining an objective, non-advocacy stance in a field in which advocacy is the major form of presentation."
  • "Since forensic linguists deal in probabilities, not certainties, it is all the more essential to further refine this field of study, experts say. “There have been cases where it was my impression that the evidence on which people were freed or convicted was iffy in one way or another,” says Edward Finegan, president of the International Association of Forensic Linguists. Vanderbilt law professor Edward Cheng, an expert on the reliability of forensic evidence, says that linguistic analysis is best used when only a handful of people could have written a given text." (David Zax, "How Did Computers Uncover J.K. Rowling’s Pseudonym?" Smithsonian, March 2014)

Language as a Fingerprint

  • "What [Robert A. Leonard] thinks about of late is forensic linguistics, which he describes as 'the newest arrow in the quiver of law enforcement and lawyers.'
  • "'In a nutshell, just think of language as a fingerprint to be studied and analyzed,' he enthuses. 'The point to be made here is that language can help you solve crimes and language can help you prevent crimes. There is a tremendous pent-up demand for this kind of training. This can be the difference between someone going to jail over a confession he didn’t actually write.'
  • "His consultation on the murder of Charlene Hummert, a 48-year-old Pennsylvania woman who was strangled in 2004, helped put her killer in prison. Mr. Leonard determined, through the quirky punctuation in two letters of confession by a supposed stalker and a self-described serial killer, that the actual author was Ms. Hummert’s spouse. 'When I studied the writings and made the connection, it made the hair on my arms stand up.'" (Robin Finn, "A Graduate of Sha Na Na, Now a Linguistics Professor." The New York Times, June 15, 2008)
  • "The linguistic fingerprint is a notion put forward by some scholars that each human being uses language differently, and that this difference between people can be observed just as easily and surely as a fingerprint. According to this view, the linguistic fingerprint is the collection of markers, which stamps a speaker/writer as unique. . . .
  • "[N]obody has yet demonstrated the existence of such a thing as a linguistic fingerprint: how then can people write about it in this unexamined, regurgitated way, as though it were a fact of forensic life?
  • "Perhaps it is this word 'forensic' that is responsible. The very fact that it collocates so regularly with words like expert and science means that it cannot but raise expectations. In our minds we associate it with the ability to single out the perpetrator from the crowd to a high degree of precision, and so when we put forensic next to linguistics as in the title of this book we are effectively saying forensic linguistics is a genuine science just like forensic chemistry, forensic toxicology, and so on. Of course, insofar as a science is a field of endeavour in which we seek to obtain reliable, even predictable results, by the application of a methodology, then forensic linguistics is a science. However, we should avoid giving the impression that it can unfailingly — or even nearly unfailingly — provide precise identification about individuals from small samples of speech or text." (John Olsson, Forensic


Linguistics: An Introduction to Language, Crime, and the Law. Continuum, 2004)

Roger W. Shuy, "Breaking Into Language and Law: The Trials of the Insider-Linguist." Round Table on Language and Linguistics: Linguistics, Language and the Professions, ed. by James E. Alatis, Heidi E. Hamilton, and Ai-Hui Tan. Georgetown University Press, 2002

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Forensic Linguistics?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-forensic-linguistics-1690868. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, January 29). What Are Forensic Linguistics? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-forensic-linguistics-1690868 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Forensic Linguistics?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-forensic-linguistics-1690868 (accessed March 28, 2023).