Forensic Linguistics – Origins and Applications

In October 1995, I attended a Communication Skills Workshop (CSW) in Hämeenlinna. The theme was “Grammar is Fun”! The guest speakers included such luminaries as Anna Mauranen, Professor of English at the University of Helsinki, and Professor Jan Svartvik of the University of Lund, Sweden.

Anna Mauranen is a household name among English teachers in Finland. Jan Svartvik’s name may not ring so many bells, but a few of you may have one of his books on your bookshelves; in 1995, Professor Svartvik’s main claim to fame was as a collaborator with Randolph Quirk and others at University College, London, to produce “A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language”, aka Quirk’s Grammar, first published in 1985. (Any bells ringing yet?) In some circles, this has become the grammar students’ “bible” – the one true account of the structures of English. Professor Svartvik was also an early advocate of what came to be known as corpus linguistics. Indeed, his presentation at the CSW was all about the London-Lund Corpus of Spoken English. At the time, I had never heard of corpus linguistics and was totally baffled.

In addition to all this noble and worthy work at the forefront of English language scholarship, Professor Svartvik has another achievement to his name – as the “father” of forensic linguistics, the application of linguistic expertise to legal issues. At least, he was the person who first used the term, in “The Evans Statements: A Case For Forensic Linguistics”, published as long ago as 1968.

The “facts” of the Evans case are as follows: on November 30th, 1949, Timothy John Evans went to a police station in his home town in South Wales and said he had “disposed of” his wife. Her body, together with that of their baby daughter, was subsequently found at their London address. Evans made and later retracted a confession. In fact, he made four statements to the police altogether, all of which, though detailed, contradicted each other. In the absence of other suspects at the time, Evans was convicted of the murder of baby Geraldine and was hanged in 1950. One conviction was enough to get him hanged, so the police never brought charges against Evans for the murder of his wife.

In one of his statements, Evans had put the blame for his wife’s death on a man called John Christie, who was another tenant in the building where the Evans family had been living at the time of the murders. The jury at Evans’s trial was not convinced by this account of the events, but when it later transpired, in 1953, that this Christie was a genuine serial killer, the case against Evans started to look shaky. A group of prominent people, including several Members of Parliament from different parties, formed a committee to campaign on Evans’s behalf, alleging dirty tricks on the part of the police. It was a member of this committee which invited Jan Svartvik to apply his textual analysis expertise to the so-called Evans statements.

The statements had supposedly been transcribed word-for-word from Evans’s oral accounts to the police. However, Svartvik was able to point out clear differences in grammatical usage in different sections of the statements, thus establishing that they had been produced by more than one person. Specifically, the sections of text which most clearly incriminated Evans were different in style from the rest of the texts. Svartvik’s findings were submitted to a public enquiry into the case in 1965 and 1966, and Evans was posthumously pardoned. Furthermore, this (probable) miscarriage of justice was a major factor in the political debate on capital punishment which was going on in Britain at the time; capital punishment for the crime of murder was abolished in Great Britain in 1965. So when Professor Svartvik wrote of his work on the Evans statements, “…it has provided the linguist with one of those rare opportunities of making a contribution that might be directly useful to society”, he was by no means exaggerating.

Despite this sensational start, forensic linguistics did not immediately thrive; nobody foresaw a demand for it. Professor Svartvik returned to his day job in academia, and as far as I have been able to discover, took no further part in the development of the discipline which he initiated. As a result, the world has been blessed with A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language and corpus linguistics rather than numerous scholarly articles on the forensic applications of language expertise.

Meanwhile, over the next 30 years, forensic linguistics developed in all kinds of different directions like an untended garden, reaching maturity as an academic discipline only around 1998. Forward to April 2013, when, at TAMK’s International Week for Language Teachers, Emily Powell of the University of South Wales brought the techniques of forensic linguistics right into the language classroom, sharing with us a highly engaging activity which combined fictional detective work with heavy-duty language analysis.

From its serious, quite tragic origins, forensic linguistics has branched out in all directions.  Today, it is a diverse and well-established field of study, with applications in courtrooms and classrooms.

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