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Our February 2022 Event: Annina Van Riper: Language as Evidence. Forensic Linguistics in Action

Language is one of the most powerful tools that humans have; the role of a forensic linguist is to analyse how people use this tool at the interface of language and law. Annina Van Riper joined us on Thursday, 17 February 2022 to discuss how linguists use core linguistic tools (e.g. phonetics, syntax, semantics etc.) to examine language in forensic contexts.

Annina kicked off their presentation with a broad overview of key linguistic disciplines like phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics, and talked about the importance of context when it comes to meaning. As they put it:

“Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s context-dependent.”

Medical experts may use an X-Ray or an MRI scan to show underlying structures within the human body. Similarly, linguistic experts define the underlying structure of language in spoken and written contexts.

A forensic linguist then applies the science of linguistic investigation to issues of the law: criminal cases, threat analysis, intelligence work, analysing contracts, letters, confessions, recorded speech, trademark cases etc.

As Annina explains: words adhere to patterns. A forensic linguist’s job is to systematically analyse these and to discover the patterns. 

Forensic linguists see language as a form of evidence that can be analysed in legal settings, in legal contexts.

Annina pointed out that forensic linguistics is a subfield of sociolinguistics, and mentioned that thanks to the internet, linguists can see and observe language and communication in real-time. 

As an example, Annina mentioned the human response to character limitations in text messages and social posts: we learn to shorten the words and adapt our writing. We do this in our everyday spoken communication as well. We also speak and write differently to different people depending on the context of our relationship.

Annina invited us all to take part in an exercise, where an unfolding story was revealed, bit by bit, sentence by sentence about a person called John. We had to guess: Who is John?  What does he do? We observed ourselves as we inferred different things about John when another sentence was revealed.

It was a challenge to stay unbiased and was a good opportunity for Annina to explain the importance of creating a well-rounded, objective and credible conclusion. 

We then went on and looked at case studies on threatening communication, authorship analysis, and Annina shared with us the famous Derek Bentley case in the UK in 1952, where the case rested on one crucial sentence and its meaning:

“Let him have it, Chris!”

Did this sentence mean “Let’s fire!” or “Let’s surrender the gun!”? A case which goes to show that semantics and pragmatics are very important.

Here’s the trailer to the 1992 movie on this very case to get a better understanding of the story:

Annina then explained how corpus linguistics, as a methodological approach can help to understand meaning in context, and gave us examples where phonetics and phonology can be applied in forensic linguistics.

Through another case study, we learnt that a forensic linguist can use their expertise as an expert witness, using their linguistic know how to support a team of lawyers:

The word ‘devil strip’ was the tell-tale in this case. With the tool of linguistic demographic profiling, forensic linguists could prove that it’s a niche word to an area in Ohio. The suspect pool, therefore, became significantly smaller and the person who wrote the ransom note was indeed found – despite the deceptive language that was used on this ransom note.

Annina demonstrated that 

patterns in language do emerge no matter how much a speaker might try to mask their own tendencies. 

As part of the Q&A, Annina dug deeper into some case studies. Language professionals, in particular translators and court interpreters shared their experiences about how they are sometimes asked to be a bit like ‘forensic linguists’ and how they have to explain that this is not their area of expertise, this is an entirely different discipline. 

Annina was also asked about the different routes linguists can take to branch out into this fascinating discipline.

Thanks for everyone’s active participation and the great comments and questions. We’ll be back again in March.


About the Speaker

Annina Van Riper is a current student pursuing a Master of Arts in Forensic Linguistics. They are passionate about studying the way language is used in everyday life as well as legal contexts. In the case of the latter, Annina has applied their forensic linguistic skillset by performing an authorship analysis for a missing person case. In addition, their recent research was focused on examining authorial stance in threatening communications. They one day hope to open their own consulting firm that specializes in forensic linguistics.

Reach out to Annina via LinkedIn. They’ll be pleased to connect with you.

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