Skip to Content

Colloquium: Carole Chaski - "Science and Conscience in Forensic Linguistics"

Friday, January 17, 2014
12:00 AM
4448 East Hall

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was a man of conscience, and he knew clearly the cost, as he said “Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” In this talk, I want to explain how the science of linguistics can and must protect the conscience when a linguist enters into the legal arena. Only when conscience is “with science” can forensic linguistics become both forensic science and scientific linguistics.

Since the 1800’s, linguistic evidence has been proffered in American trials for various purposes: to identify authorship, dialect, voice, and to authenticate documents for what these documents purports to be, to assess linguistic ability, and to compare levels of similarity between texts. American courts have sometimes admitted, sometimes excluded the evidence related to language. Clearly, during this time, a linguistics model of language –how we think about language- has been developed through the rise of American structuralism, the birth of modern linguistics in Amerindian studies, and the development of generative and corpus linguistics. Academically-trained linguists all share certain ideas about language, a scientifically-based model of language.

It would seem then that linguists as scientists would function as expert witnesses in ways that look like normal linguistics. Were it so, but non-scientific competing models of language still pervade American trials, on the one hand, and on the other, expert witnesses in language have often been far less than scientific. While exemplifying this state of affairs with several trials, I will focus specifically on the Trayvon Martin case. Here we see cowardice, expedience, and even conscience at work in the linguistic evidence.