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Review of  Forensic Linguistics

Reviewer: Blake Stephen Howald
Book Title: Forensic Linguistics
Book Author: John Olsson
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Forensic Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.2774

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Date: Sun, 26 Sep 2004 14:49:44 -0700 (PDT)
From: Blake Stephen Howald
Subject: Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language, Crime and the Law

Author: Olsson, John
Title: Forensic Linguistics
Subtitle: An Introduction to Language, Crime and the Law
Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
Year: 2004

Blake Stephen Howald, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law

Forensic Linguistics by John Olsson is "intended to be the core text
for forensic linguistic courses at [the] undergraduate level, and the
key text for postgraduate research students wishing to gain an overall
grasp of the subject." (from the cover) Olsson takes the reader-student
through the various foci of applied forensic linguistics, supplementing
the highlighted areas with contemporary texts and examples from actual
criminal cases.

Forensic linguistics is hard to define for many linguists. This is
primarily so because the majority of contributors are law enforcement
practitioners rather than academic linguists. Areas of study as diverse
as graphology, document examination, voice print analysis,
psycholinguistic threat analysis, language rights, stylistics and
interrogation, fall under the heading of forensic linguistics
(McMenamin 2002: 67-107). Consequently, due to the lack of a normalized
definition coupled with a lacunae of understanding between academic
linguists and law enforcement practitioners, the field of forensic
linguistics has acquired a stigma of being more art than science. John
Olsson's Forensic Linguistics, An Introduction to Language, Crime and
the Law, is a breakthrough text in that Olsson, who is both
practitioner and academic linguist, acceptingly embraces the current
state of forensic linguistics as a field with many subdisciplines while
simultaneously lobbying for the concomitant need to close the gap of
misunderstanding between linguist and practitioner with an eye toward
integration of the field.

Olsson remarks that the text "is intended to be the core text for
forensic linguistic courses at [the] undergraduate level, and the key
text for postgraduate research students wishing to gain an overall gasp
of the subject." (Cover) I agree that the text accomplishes this
overall aim with the caveat that the target audience is clearly the
student seeking an overall education in the forensic sciences or
criminal justice rather than the student of traditional academic
linguistics. Olsson gives a comprehensive treatment of the main
subdisciplines of the forensic linguistic practitioner. Furthermore,
Olsson is not only cognizant of where each subdiscipline fits within
the larger modern framework of forensic linguistics which provides an
overall effective introduction to the field, but also of where forensic
linguistics fits within the legal community. Olsson provides an
excellent discussion on the legal sufficiency of expert testimony
evidence in the American courts coupled with a comparative survey of
other nations where forensic linguistics is used in the legal system.

This is not to say, however, that the text will not be of use to the
academic linguist who may or may not ever have to interact with the
legal system; quite the contrary. The academic linguist will easily be
able to find areas of interest within the sub-disciplines that are in
need of further research and attention at the undergraduate and
certainly the postgraduate level. To date, the major contributions to
forensic linguistics by academic linguists have been in forensic
phonetics (Baldwin and French 1990), discourse analysis (Shuy 1993,
1998 and Coulthard 1994), and sylistics (McMenamin 2002). Olsson lends
due deference to the contributions of these linguists to the field of
forensic linguistics, despite forgoing treatment of subjects such as
pragmatics and discourse analysis. Despite Olsson's expertise in
academic linguistics, however, there is failure to integrate some of
the fundamental concepts of linguistics to the practical elements of
forensic linguistics outlined in the text. This seems paradoxical at
times as the chapter devoted to forensic phonetics is very carefully
written, is replete with understanding of advanced concepts and is not
intimidating to a non-linguist. However, other chapters, such as
authorship and the emergency phone call analysis in the forensic text
types chapter are peppered with off-the- cuff references such as
Wernike's Aphasia (164) and Grice's Maxims (95) which have no
explanation, no cited reference, and, in the case of Wernike's Aphasia,
have no relevant foundation for the topic under discussion. This is
unfortunate as a logical function of the text is arguably to enlighten
both the academic and the practitioner. Instances such as those
mentioned are contrary to this function. If the goal is indeed to unify
forensic linguistics between practitioner and academic, it is essential
to provide the non-academic linguist with the academic theory behind
the subdisciplines within the field and vice versa.

As mentioned above, forensic linguistics has integrated other
disciplines such as psychology into traditional analysis. Nowhere is
this more apparent than in the case of statement analysis and veracity
detection which necessarily involves motives of an individual author.
Olsson does draw upon his experiences as part of his analysis, which is
both relevant and well founded. There is a potential for this type of
analysis to alienate the academic linguist who may be more based in the
scientific method and want more clarification for what may be
experiential assumptions no matter how well founded they are. That is
not to say that Olsson does not approach the analysis from a scientific
viewpoint, nor to say that he doesn't do an excellent job of focusing
on the strictly linguistic aspects of statement analysis and veracity
detection: time, aspect, tense, sequence, etc. Furthermore, consistent
with the practical aim of the text, the examples and methods of
analysis in this chapter demonstrate Olsson's expertise and
understanding of the fundamental concepts of statement analysis. (For
further discussion on statement analysis see Sapir 1987).

Olsson certainly lends appropriate weight to the systematic approach to
analyzing forensic texts (especially in authorship and plagiarism
inquiries) and the associated statistical methods necessary to these
techniques. However, there is a drawback to Olsson's decision to
provide a brief introduction to statistics. Olsson seeks to make the
definition and application of statistical methods such as t-tests,
NOVA, ANOVA, and chi-square, simple and easy to grasp. Unfortunately
his attempt comes across as awkward and disruptive of the chapter in
which it is contained. A treatment of statistics is essential for a
proper survey of stylistics and authorship sampling, but if a
straightforward, no nonsense approach to statistics is going to be
implemented, it should be done by a statistician and possibly in a
separate chapter rather than integrated, which can be distracting from
the subject matter of the chapter. (for example, McMenamin devotes a
separate chapter to statistics, which feels more appropriate.) Olsson
does point out, however that any student of forensic linguistics should
take the time to enroll in a statistics course. Olsson also needs to
point out that any student of forensic linguistics should take the time
to enroll in introductory linguistics, sociolinguistics, phonetics, and
discourse analysis.

If we are going to move toward linguistics as a forensic discipline,
then there must be less reliance on non-linguistic explanation and
poorly founded linguistic interpretations that fail to understand the
fundamentals of academic linguistics. Otherwise the techniques and
analyses will continue to have an unscientific stigma, especially in
the American courts. The text runs the risk of educating the
practitioner target audience in misunderstandings about the field of
linguistics which may ultimately inhibit the development of the field.
Current trends in American courts toward expert testimony lend an
increasing reliance on common acceptance of the science behind the
forensic techniques. If the practitioners of forensic linguistics fail
to understand the science behind linguistics, the process of expert
testimony is undermined. Fortunately, for both linguist and
practitioner, the text provides enough fodder for extensive continued
research that the academic linguist should fervently develop.

Overall, the text is well rounded, accurate, and relevant to the
student of forensic linguistics. Additionally, the smooth flow of the
text is complemented by timely examples and problems that make the text
completely self-contained (much like the internet course offered by
Olsson: Completion of the text from start to finish
will leave the student with an introduction to the practical aspects of
forensic linguistics. Future editions should not shy away from
implementing more traditional academic linguistics into the text as it
is not only appropriate but necessary for the ultimate understanding of
the field. Forensic linguistics is moving into new and exciting
directions and this text is the first and only comprehensive treatment
of the subject to date that makes accurate assertions about where the
many sub-disciplines of forensic linguistics fit with each other and
within the field as a whole. The academic linguist should seek to
develop the techniques in the book and focus on research to supplement
the field. Similarly, the student of the forensic sciences should seek
to become acquainted with traditional linguistics, beyond an
understanding of grammar, in order to become a more well-rounded
practitioner. Olsson's text provides the long awaited bridge to
facilitate this cohesiveness that will lead to a more comprehensive and
accurate field.

Baldwin, J. R. and P. French (1990) Forensic Phonetics. Pinter

Coulthard, M. (1994) Forensic Discourse Analysis. Advances in Written
Text Analysis, pp. 242-58. Routledge.

McMenamin, Gerald R. (2002) Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic
Stylistics. CRC Press LLC.

Sapir, A. (1987) The LSI Course on Scientific Content Analysis (SCAN).
Laboratory for Scientific Interrogation.

Shuy, Roger W. (1993) Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language
Evidence in the Courtroom. Blackwell.

Shuy, Roger W. (1998) The Language of Confession, Interrogation, and
Deception. Sage Publications.

Blake Stephen Howald graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics
from the University of Pittsburgh in 2001. After spending a year
researching the field of forensic linguistics, Mr. Howald entered the
University of Detroit Mercy School of Law where he is a second-year law
student. Mr. Howald concentrates on law and logic, law and linguistics,
and litigation techniques. Upon completion of his Juris Doctor, Mr.
Howald is considering post-graduate study in the field of forensic

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