LINGUIST List 19.751|
Thu Mar 06 2008
Review: Forensic Linguistics: Kniffka (2007)
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Review: Forensic Linguistics: Kniffka (2007)
Message 1: Review: Forensic Linguistics: Kniffka (2007)
From: Randall Eggert <randylinguistlist.org>
Subject: Review: Forensic Linguistics: Kniffka (2007)
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AUTHOR: Kniffka, Hannes
TITLE: Working in Language and Law: A German Perspective
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
Blake Stephen Howald, JD, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University
This book is not a biography, but Kniffka's experiences are used to bolster a
very robust and multifaceted discussion of authorship attribution, the
''language crimes'' (Shuy 1993) of defamation, libel, and slander, and the role
that an expert linguist plays in the complex system of law. While those
practitioners who focus on these issues will have the most to gain from
Kniffka's insights, this book is, despite being a bit technical, fairly
accessible for those with a non-practitioner interest in language & law (the
broad characterization pairing linguistics with some aspect of the legal system)
and forensic linguistics (the narrow focus of applying linguistics to issues of
language evidence, henceforth (FL).
The book is divided into four parts. Part I, consisting of Chapter One,
''Forensic Linguistics: Its Relatives and Neighbors-An Interdisciplinary
Perspective'', discusses the placement of language & law as a subset of applied
linguistics, i.e. the application of theoretical linguistics and a number of
''interdisciplinary'' fields of linguistics, e.g. sociolinguistics, corpus
linguistics, and psycholinguistics, to analyses in the legal system (28). FL is
considered a subfield of language & law and, Kniffka argues, an auxiliary
forensic science; a sister to both forensic phonetics and forensic and writing
analysis (29). Kniffka also provides an introduction to the German legal system,
including the functions of law enforcement, forensic sciences, and the conduct
of the expert linguist, as well as comparative legal perspectives. For example,
in Germany, it is exclusively the right of the court to call for experts (as
opposed to the U.S., where experts can be called by the court, but are almost
always called by parties to litigations) (8). Kniffka provides this structural
backdrop so as to orient the reader and place the remaining chapters in their
proper linguistic and legal context.
Part II provides a more detailed discussion of the practical, theoretical, and
methodological considerations in providing expert testimony in authorship
attribution. Providing expert testimony is a highly constrained endeavor, both
from a perspective of legal procedure and from a perspective of tailoring
testimony to a given audience, i.e. a judge or jury. The discussion in Chapter
Two, ''The Linguist as an Expert Witness in German Courts: A View from the
1970s'', does well by illustrating the discussion of this rather complex system
with examples taken from Kniffka's experiences in providing expert testimony.
While the advice given would be most relevant in the German context (and
possibly other civil code based systems), it is generalizable to other legal
systems. For example, the recommendation that an expert should not make their
reports and testimony overly complex and technical for fear of alienating legal
professionals (133) is sound advice for the U.S. legal system, and, arguably,
any expert's involvement with any legal system.
Chapter Three, ''Status and Tasks of Forensic Linguistic Authorship Analysis'',
focuses on key questions in authorship attribution. For example, how is the
notion of idiolect used in authorship attribution? How should qualitative and
quantitative analyses be approached? A consideration of these questions seeks to
ground the reader in the theoretical and practical concerns of authorship
attribution in regard to the legal system.
Chapter Four, '''Shibboleths' as Data of Linguistic Behavior'', systematically
analyzes a fundamental aspect of authorship attribution: namely, is authorship
attribution a measure of idiolect, or a measure of group level characteristics
of language use? Kniffka's ultimate conclusion is that, in the majority of
cases, ''group-specific features can sometimes be used to identify a particular
speaker, not, however, as an individual, but as a representative of one group or
speech community as opposed to another'' (108, referencing Sapir 1927). Part III
contains several chapters, each of which focuses on a different topic in the
analysis of defamation and authorship attribution. While primarily concerned
with current research in Germany, the discussion is generalizable to
practitioners within all legal systems.
Chapter Five, ''Libel, Linguists, and Litigation in Germany'', provides a
well-balanced discussion of the linguist's role in providing analyses of
defamation. Kniffka provides here a comprehensive view of the intricate legal
aspects of the laws implicated by defamation, as well as the linguistic
considerations of performing an analysis within the operation of these laws, and
the procedural considerations of working with lawyers and judges.
Chapter Six, ''A Heuristic Author and Writer/Typist Taxonomy'', provides a feature
based approach to analyzing different modalities in written language evidence.
Questions addressed here include how to analyze differences between authors and
writers (who are not always the same person), and differences between text
types, e.g. threats, extortion letters, and blackmail.
Chapter Seven, ''The System and Diagnostic Potential of Orthographic Data in
Forensic Linguistic Authorship Attribution'', and Chapter Eight, ''Orthographic
Data in Forensic Linguistic Authorship Analysis'', are, as their titles suggest,
the analytical potential of orthography in authorship attribution. Kniffka
indicates that, at best, there is diagnostic potential in orthographic data in
authorship attribution and could be considered in a larger analysis of
authorship, but should not be consider as a sole indicator (234).
Part IV consists of two short chapters, acting as an epilogue addressing what
improvements need to be made to the field and what is currently being done to
address these improvements. Chapter Nine, ''Language and Law: Some Needs'',
provides a systematized view, based on Kniffka's experiences, of cooperative
practices that will improve interdisciplinary communication between linguists
and legal professionals. In particular, improving the education of legal
professionals about what contributions linguistics can realistically make to the
legal system is paramount (252). To this end, it is incumbent on the linguist
to, in turn, be knowledgeable about the inner workings of the law and forensic
Chapter Ten, ''Outlook'', finishes the book with some key observations and pieces
of advice for FL moving forward; these include, most notably, the realization
that computational and sophisticated classification methodologies are changing
the landscape of how authorship attribution is performed. However, despite the
methodological 'update', Kniffka makes it very clear that the core theoretical
concepts should not be deviated from. In particular, the need for linguists to
be empirical is something that should never be lost in an analysis (266-67).
For those who work and study in language & law, Hannes Kniffka, a professor of
linguistics at Bonn University, has been one of the long-time constants in the
field, consistently providing thoughtful and complete analyses of major issues
in, especially, FL. While Kniffka has enjoyed wide readership in Europe, he is
less well known in the United States. In the welcome, and, arguably long
overdue, _Working in Language and Law: A German Perspective_ (henceforth WLLGP),
Kniffka chronicles his long and active career in the German legal system as a
forensic linguist and provides his seasoned perspective on the field of FL.
WLLGP is a multifaceted work that balances a number of legal, linguistic, and
comparative considerations while following a logical and systematic progression
from beginning to end. WLLGP serves in part as a ''how to'' guide for forensic
linguists and in part experienced commentary on the field in Germany and
elsewhere. It is an ambitious work, accomplishing in one book what Shuy (1993,
1997, 2005, 2006) has arguably accomplished over several shorter works. However,
it is because of the ambitiousness of the work that several shortcomings emerge.
For example, the style is a bit inconsistent, most likely due to the
multimodality of the chapters; some are original English-language prose, and
some are translations and adaptations from German articles. Aside from these
technical observations, there are other points of criticism.
In Part I, while Kniffka's broad structural characterization of FL and language
& law is apt, not all of the relationships considered are as concrete as Kniffka
may make them seem. In particular, Kniffka's placement of FL in relation to
graphology is treading into some deep water that deserves more discussion than
what is presented. Albeit Kniffka is presenting the German perspective and I
trust that it is indeed the case that the cooperative and interdisciplinary
setting is such that this evidence-centric rather than theoretic-centric
grouping works, the theoretical and methodological cores of linguistics and
graphology do not make this grouping work across legal systems. It can be
dangerous to group two theoretically different fields together for fear of
misunderstanding in the legal system. In the U.S. system, overgeneralization of
linguistics has been a key source of misunderstanding on the part of legal
professionals about linguistics (Kniffka acknowledges this in terms of
recognizing that judges often feel that their opinion on language evidence is
just as good as a trained linguist (250-52)). This misunderstanding has damaged
the reputation of linguistics in the U.S. legal setting (Tiersma & Solan 2002,
In WLLGP, while the example analyses performed in Part III are extremely well
reasoned and meticulous, there is a noticeable lack of currency in the
theoretical justifications. While there is arguably nothing in recent theory
that would invalidate the core theoretical assumptions of the analyses
performed, which in and of itself is a testament to Kniffka's scientific
attention and care, a mismatch is nonetheless created between the ''cutting
edge'' quality of the analyses performed and the dated references used to
justify them. For example, the discussions of text-typing and writer/author
taxonomies are very relevant for current practices in FL and represent a recent
shift in forensic science generally away from individual based classifications
toward higher level or group classifications. However, when only, for example, Sapir
(1927) and Labov (1966) are provided as theoretical justifications for the work,
the analyses feel less impressive.
This observation does not apply to all of Kniffka's analyses. For example,
chapters Seven and Eight, which draw significantly on Kniffka's early work, are
especially informative in regard to the use of orthography in FL. Kniffka links
his analyses well to contemporary issues in authorship attribution. In
particular, the use of prescriptive grammar informed variables, in and of
themselves, have been shown to be unreliable as indicators of authorship (Chaski
2001). One key reason for this is that some practitioners of authorship
attribution make almost exclusive use of variables such as punctuation, sentence
structure and misspellings, but do not employ empirical methodologies; often
conflating prescriptivism and descriptivism. For Kniffka, empiricism is one of
the most important considerations in authorship attribution analyses. The use of
prescriptive grammar variables would be much less controversial if practitioners
utilized the level of empirical and analytical care that Kniffka employs.
These criticisms aside, it is important to mention that, in addition to the
contributions WLLGP makes to authorship attribution and comparative perspectives
on FL, Chapter Five on the Language Crime of Defamation is a near prototypical
example of what current research in FL should arguably conform to: a balanced
interdisciplinary approach between linguistics and law (see also Howald 2006,
Solan & Tiersma, 2004, 2005). Kniffka masterfully balances a discussion between
the legal implications and linguistic analysis of these issues without
alienating two such divergent audiences as legal and linguistic professionals.
This is a very difficult task that few have been able to perform well, yet
Kniffka does so easily.
WLLGP is an impressive work that should certainly enjoy wide readership within
the language & law community. For those who have a curiosity about FL, this
work, while technical, is accessible and nuanced. For those who have a strong
interest in FL, especially those practitioners of authorship attribution and
language crimes, WLLGP epitomizes the type of care that should be performed in
FL analyses. This could only have been achieved by someone of Kniffka's caliber,
experience and ability in alancing the fields of linguistics and law.
Chaski, Carole. (2001) Empirical evaluation of language-based author
identification techniques. _International Journal of Speech, Language and the
Howald, Blake. (2006) Comparative and non-comparative forensic linguistic
analysis techniques: methodologies for negotiating the interface of linguistics
and evidentiary jurisprudence in the American judiciary. _University of Detroit
Mercy Law Review_ 83.285-330.
Labov, William (1966) _The Social stratification of English in New York City_.
Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
Sapir, Edward (1927) Speech as a personality trait. _American Journal of
Sociology_ 32. 892-905. Reprinted as Speech and personality. In N. Markel ed.
(1969) _Psycholinguistics. An Introduction to the Study of Speech and
Personality_. omewood, IL: Dorsey Press: 44-56.
Shuy, Roger (1993) _Language crimes: The use and abuse of language evidence in
the Courtroom_. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
Shuy, Roger (1997) _The language of confession, interrogation, and deception_.
Shuy, Roger (2005) _Creating language crime: How law enforcement uses (and
misuses) language_. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shuy, Roger (2006) _Linguistics in the courtroom: A practical guide_. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Solan, Larry & Peter Tiersma (2004) Author identification in American courts.
Applied Linguistics_ 25(4).448-465.
Solan, Larry & Peter Tiersma (2005) _Speaking of crime: The language of criminal
justice_. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Tiersma, Peter & Larry Solan (2002) The linguist on the witness stand: Forensic
linguistics in American courts. _Language_ 78.229-30.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Blake Stephen Howald, JD received his BA in linguistics from
the University of Pittsburgh and his JD from the University of Detroit Mercy
School of Law. He is currently a second-year Ph.D. student in linguistics at
Georgetown University. In addition to writing and researching about the field of
Language & Law and Forensic Linguistics, Mr. Howald is researching the
discourse, cognitive and pragmatic aspects of violent criminal interactions.
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