Linguistics deals with systematic and scientific study of language and it has various applications in various fields due to its analytical nature. One of such applications is the field of ‘Forensic Linguistics’. Forensic Linguistics is a field where the language analysis and inquisitiveness meet the law. It is a study of language to investigate crimes. It is generally applied in criminal law however it has applications in Civil law as well such as Authorship disputes, documentation, media disputes etc. All the developed countries take regular help from Forensic Linguists to solve crimes and also offer dedicated courses and training for the same in their universities. But, India, despite being a Multilingual society and having potential for vast application of the field of forensic linguistics, has not yet warmed up to the idea of developing a profession of Forensic Linguistics or incorporating formal training of the field in criminal law education.
NEED FOR FORENSIC LINGUISTICS IN LAW
Law and Language has a connection which is hidden in plain sight. Whenever a person learns law, he/she has to adapt to the specialized language that is used in the legal discourse which is vastly different from the language that is used in day-to-day life. However, when it comes to ground realities, especially in criminal law, all this training in legal language may not actually be helpful.
The accused persons are generally not trained in law and as a result, their statements, confessions or even any conversation with them involves a language which a person dealing with them may or may not be aware of. There are various dialects, cultural or societal connotations to how a person speaks. Analysis of such statements from a forensic point of view may reveal a lot in between the lines and can save a lot of time. Even the rules of interpretations of Law seek to know the ‘intention of legislature’ before interpreting and applying law. The same principle can help here, though in layman/ day to day language instead of legal language, to know the true intentions of the speaker.
As mentioned, in India, there are hardly any people who are actually aware of the field. Even from a global perspective, the forensic linguistics field is relatively new as compared to other fields of Applied Linguistics. Hence, understanding what a forensic linguist does is very important.
SCOPE OF FORENSIC LINGUISTICS IN LEGAL FIELD
Attribution of Authorship and analysis for identifying if there is Fabrication of Confessions-
Prof. Jan Svartvik from Sweden, who is also known as ‘Father of forensic linguistics’ , had first carried out research in Europe in relation to fabrication of confessions obtained by Police officials. A defendant/ accused is interviewed by the police officials and a written statement, sometimes including a confession of crime, is taken. This is presented as evidence in court. Now, there is no way of knowing whether police officials, while writing down statements or even something as primary as an FIR, have added vocabulary or phrasing of their own which could have caused them to change or give different meaning to the statement. A forensic linguist may be asked whether police went beyond natural cooperation and actually colluded to fabricate evidence. This can be better explained with the following example. Here, 2 police officers on patrolling duty have given statements.
Statement of Constable XXXX
“I asked if he had consumed alcohol, he replied ‘WELL NOT AS SUCH’. Again, I asked if he had consumed alcohol, he replied ‘OK YES’. I invited X to sit in the rear of the police vehicle and he did so. There I assembled a breath screening device and asked X to provide a sample of breath for the screening test. He provided the sample and the device indicated that he had failed the test. I then cautioned X and told him that he was being arrested on suspicion of driving a motor vehicle in a public place while over the prescribed alcohol limit. He replied ‘HMM RIGHT’.”
Statement of Constable YYYY
“Constable XXXX asked Mr. X if he had consumed any alcohol, he replied ‘WELL NOT AS SUCH’. Constable XXXX again asked Mr. X if he had consumed alcohol, he replied ‘OK YES’. Constable XXXX asked Mr. X to accompany him and sat in the rear of the Police vehicle, where constable XXXX conducted a breath test procedure. Mr. X supplied a sample which was positive. Constable XXXX cautioned and arrested Mr. X on suspicion of driving a motor vehicle on a road and in a public place whilst over the prescribed limit. He replied ‘HMM RIGHT’.”
From highlighted text in above two statements gives rise to suspicion as to whether these 2 police officers have colluded in framing the defendant. This is because, these statements give rise to the question that how 2 people, whether police officers or not, are likely to have remembered another person’s exact words several hours or even days later including the sounds such as ‘HMM’ which normally would not be remembered or given in statement by either or both of witnesses, in this case- police officers.
Even the phrasing of the statements given above, is exactly the same which also raises suspicion as the use of vocabulary for reporting the same incident by 2 distinct persons would, generally, not be exactly the same.
Thus, a forensic linguist may be asked to give opinion whether the statements, written down or oral, give rise to any suspicion of whether there is any fabrication of evidence etc.
Language as an aid in Investigation-
There was a case in Namakkal in Tamilnadu where a person had murdered his wife since she came to know about his extra-marital affair with another woman. The accused had confessed to murder in front of Police but while confessing he had used words such as ‘I’, ‘I only’ repeatedly while describing how he had murdered his wife. This led to suspicion as to why he is insistent on taking the entire blame when the police had not even questioned whether he had an accomplice. This analysis of his statement led to arrest of his girlfriend who, the police came know after investigation, was accompanying the accused when the murder took place. Thus, study of linguistics had helped the police to catch an accomplice.
Analysis of forensic texts and transcriptions-
Forensic linguists may be called upon to analyse forensic texts which include Suicide notes, threat texts/notes, defendant or witness statements, hate mails etc. A person’s usual talking habits, thinking habits etc may be analysed and compared with suicide notes, threat mails etc. for identity verification and genuineness of the texts. The transcriptions also may be used as evidence in court which help in identifying the speaker using the talking habits and characteristics of the speaker such as use of ‘pet word or phrase’.
Analysis of Auditory and Acoustic Phonetics-
Forensic linguistics can help in voice identification, identification of social or regional accents, speaker’s age in audio evidence. It can also aid in identification of the psychological state of the speaker, effects of intoxication on speech etc.
Understanding courtroom discourse-
Forensic linguistics will not only aid in investigations and evidence analysis. It can also help in understanding the use of courtroom discourse better. The judiciary is supposed to be an unbiased pillar of democracy but it is a widely known phenomenon that there are possibilities of the judiciary being biased or affected by some external factors which may be detrimental to the interest of justice such as stress, pressure etc. Forensic linguistics can help in understanding instructions given by judges better and can also aid in understanding the penned judgments better. This can bring transparency in the courtroom discourse.
Analysis of the language of the Law-
Forensic linguistics can definitely help in interpretation of legal texts to provide clarity and brevity in the law. This field can massively work in understanding what the legislature intended while passing any law and how it is now interpreted by various courts and whether they both are in the same lines with each other.
As already mentioned, all the developed nations use techniques of forensic linguistics as an aid in Criminal investigations and also the courts accept the testimony of forensic linguists as expert witness. India is a multilingual country which automatically provides a very wide scope to the field of forensic linguistics.
However, so far, no significant efforts are made in India to use forensic linguistics in any police investigation, court trials or interpretation of laws. It can generate a number of job opportunities for linguists across the country. Also, this can modernize the criminal investigation as well as can afford better informed justice delivery. It is astounding to think that India, having 22 scheduled languages, has not focused on this important aspect of Linguistics in Law while still sticking to age-old Common Law system which has primary language of English. Ignorance of multilingual nature of the country has led to no good and rendered the criminal justice system inefficient. Application of forensic linguistics in the field of Criminal Law can surely increase the efficiency of the criminal investigations as well as legal discourse.
John Olsson, June Luchjenbroers, Forensic Linguistics (3rd Edn, Bloomsbury, 2019)
Dr. Syam SK, Aspects of Forensic Linguistics in Policing, Vol. 18, Languages in India ISSN 1930-2940, 100-111, (2018).
N. Vijayan, Preplanned Crimes- An Analysis of Statements and Confessions in Forensic Linguistics, Vol. 13, Languages in India ISSN 1930-2940, 100-111, (2013).
Mohsen Ghasemi Ariani, Fatimeh Sajedi, Mahin Sajedi, Forensic Linguistics: A brief overview of the key elements, Vol. 158, Procedia- Social and Behavioral Sciences, 222-225, (2014).
Dr. S. Prema, A Note on Forensic Linguistics in India, Vol. 42, DLA News, (2018)
This article is written by Utkarsha Deshpande of Kishinchand Chellaram Law College, Mumbai.