Language as Evidence: Forensic Linguistics

Course time: 
Tuesday/Friday 11:00 AM-12:50 PM
JSB 114

Language as Evidence: Forensic Linguistics Robert A. Leonard, Hofstra University and Tanya K. Christensen, University of Copenhagen


1. Course description

This course will introduce you to forensic linguistics, the application of linguistic theory and methodology to language evidence in criminal and civil cases.

The course is co-taught:

Dr. Tanya Christensen, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, teaches forensic linguistics on the undergraduate and graduate levels and is highly active on the European continent. The first linguist to be registered on the Danish National Police’s list of forensic experts, she recently worked with them to help secure convictions in a Syrian Warrior case (a Dane traveling to Syria to fight on the side of ISIS) and a hate crime threat case. Dr. Christensen initiated the establishment and expansion of forensic linguistic networks both with US universities and law schools, and even more so in Northern Europe, among academics and with practitioners of all kinds (police, judges, lawyers, prison correction services), both nationally and internationally. Dr. Christensen is also working with the Danish National Forensic Center to construct a database of criminally oriented communications.

Dr. Robert Leonard is Professor of Linguistics, Director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics, Threat Assessment, and Strategic Analysis, and Director of the Graduate Program in Linguistics: Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra. The New Yorker magazine calls Leonard “One of the foremost language detectives in the country”. A Fulbright Fellow for his doctoral work at Columbia University, he has worked with the FBI and police, protective services, counter-terrorism, and intelligence agencies throughout the U.S., Canada, the U.K. continental Europe, and Asia, as well as with many defense teams. Other clients include Apple, Inc., Facebook, the NYPD Hate Crimes Task Force, and the Prime Minister of Canada. Leonard’s testimony has been pivotal in investigating and prosecuting high-profile cases, including the JonBenet Ramsey murder, death threats to judges and U.S. Congress members, and the triple homicide of the Coleman family in Illinois.

Students will work on actual cases, including a current, ongoing exoneration case. All cases are ones on which one or both of the two instructors consulted. Students will perform analyses of these real-world criminal, civil, and intelligence cases in which language itself was and is crucial evidence.

Students are also introduced to the Forensic Linguistics Capital Case Innocence Project. Through this Project, linguistics interns, both graduate and undergraduate, work with law students on reanalyses of language evidence that caused life imprisonment or placed people on death row.

Be aware and prepare for the fact that some case studies contain very strong language, themes, and distressing, violent, and often gruesome details of crimes and pathological motivations that it will not be possible for students to avoid seeing, hearing or analyzing. 

Using theoretical and methodological principles of variationist sociolinguistics, dialectology, corpus linguistics, discourse analysis, pragmatics, conversation analysis and semantics, we delve into the intricacies of actual case data. As we shall see, such data are complex and often call for many different types of linguistic analyses. 

Preliminary readings

As a first glimpse of what forensic linguists do, we suggest you browse the texts below. 

  • Leonard, Robert A. 2004. Forensic Linguistics in NYPD Blue. In: Yeffeth, G. (Ed.) What Would Sipowicz Do?: Race, Rights and Redemption in NYPD Blue. Benbella Books, 91-119.
    (Written for a popular audience, this is a non-technical article that discusses the cooperative principle, schemas, pragmatics, inference, dialect and idiolect, the sociolinguistics of language as identity, code-switching, and linguistic accommodation as tools for analyzing courtroom procedure, police interrogation, and how memories can be shaped by questioning.)
  • Perkins, Ria & Tim Grant. 2013. Forensic Linguistics. Siegel, J. A. & Saukko, P. J. (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences. Academic Press, 174-177.
    (A brief overview.)
  • Svartvik, Jan. 1968. The Evans statements. University of Gothenburg.
    (This case is the origin of the term ”forensic linguistics.”) (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. 

Other useful links and resources

Documentaries on cases including FL analyses

This course  has an interdisciplinary focus--on the intersection of linguistic analysis and the realities of police work, court procedures, case law, intelligence analysis, and the US Constitution.

Forensic linguistics applies linguistic theory, research and methodology to issues of the law. Forensic linguistics augments investigative and legal analysis by applying rigorous principles of language analysis to linguistic evidence, and thus seeks to help further the cause of justice, whether consulting for the defense or for the prosecution. We draw on well-established linguistic theories and analytical tools, including variationist sociolinguistics, functionalist semantics, pragmatic inference, schemata, the cooperative principle, speech events, conversational strategies, topic management and support, narrative construction, and speech acts.

2. Motivation for the course

Language is pervasive in people’s dealings with the law. The U.S. legal system is based upon language and its use: to write contracts, promulgate laws, question suspects, give testimony, confess and deny. Indeed, what in the law is not language? Nonetheless, much of the information conveyed by language is overlooked or misinterpreted by legal practitioners, sometimes with dire consequences for victims or defendants. Among current concerns in Forensic Linguistics are translation issues for people with a limited command of English, threat assessment of possible domestic and foreign terrorists online, wrongful incarceration due to false confessions or misinterpretation of linguistic evidence, and how to address courts’ acceptance of linguistic analyses.