Forensic linguistics gives victims and the wrongfully convicted the voices they deserve

“Most people take language for granted, but not you … You and I both appreciate the power and specificity of words.” This quote, taken from the recent Netflix series Manhunt: Unabomber, sums up nicely the notion that language is more powerful than many of us are aware of. Words impact how events and those who participate in them are perceived, which may explain why criminal cases can sometimes result in miscarriages of justice.

The issue of criminal injustice is where my interest lies. I work in the field of forensic linguistics, which surfaced as a discipline in the mid-20th century and has, since then, continued to expand. Scholars have used forensic language techniques to look at areas such as the complexity of legal writing, the problems associated with interpreting inside the courtroom, authorship attribution, false confessions and the testimony of rape victims.

The last example is one of two areas that I have been working on, using a critical discourse analysis (CDA) approach to find out what meanings lie behind people’s words. CDA enables researchers to examine how power and inequality radiate through discourse, and identify beliefs and ideas that are resonant – particularly those which become apparent through, for instance, the choice of certain words, or through the grammatical structure employed (for example, active or passive).

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