A word for the judge and jury

Forensic Linguistics

November 26, 2004

It is an exciting time for forensic linguistics, a relatively new yet thriving scientific area, consolidating linguistic and legal interests into an applied discipline addressing crucial social issues. As more and more universities offer courses in aspects of language and the law, John Olsson’s book seems a natural choice for their reading lists. But is it?

Forensic Linguistics deals largely with Olsson’s main professional pursuit, forensic authorship attribution. He remains silent on other issues at the heart of forensic linguistics, notably the analysis of contested meanings in court. The issues with which he caringly pads out his favourite subject are, though less relevant, no less absorbing: there are chapters on the status of linguistic evidence in court, veracity in language, forensic text types and phonetics. The last chapter, “The forensic cookbook”, is a curious medley of topics such as transcription as a skill, lexical richness, speech spectrography and the unit of decibel, sprinkled with a few statistical formulae.

The 12 chapters are complemented by two appendices, of which the first provides a key to exercises accompanying some of the chapters. The second contains 60 examples of real forensic texts - a very useful feature.

Olsson’s lucid explanation of forensic authorship attribution includes historical background to authorship studies, a discussion of individuality in language and the important issue of language sampling. He also talks at length about single-text authorship inquiries, authorship profiling and the detection of plagiarism.

Olsson’s book is an accessible and well-written introductory text that does not invite harsh judgement. At the same time, his testimony provides only corroborative rather than probative evidence for the forensic linguistic case. It does little justice to the anatomy, character and scope of the field and should be approached as complementary to John Gibbons’s comprehensive Forensic Linguistics and Janet Cotterill and Malcolm Coulthard’s imminent Introducing Forensic Linguistics , a volume that, unlike Olsson’s, does exactly what it promises in the title.

Krzysztof Kredens is research fellow in English, Birmingham University.

Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language, Crime and the Law. First edition

Author - John Olsson
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 269
Price - £75.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 8264 6108 5 and 6109 3

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