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Linguistic Fingerprints – Language and the Translation of Legal Documents

We have all heard of instances where legal cases have been plagued by linguistic difficulties. There is no doubt that the translation of legal documents is essential in order for our legal system to run smoothly. But, how much do you know about other linguistic methods used to facilitate investigations?

Have you ever heard of Timothy Evans? Most people haven’t. He’s actually a very significant person in British twentieth century history. He is the man who sparked a completely new branch of linguistics: forensic linguistics. Or, as some people like to spell it, phorensic linguistics. In 1950 Evans was wrongly convicted and hanged for the murder of his wife and daughter. When in fact his neighbour has duped him into believing he did the crime. This neighbour also hid the murders of six other women.

In 1953, six more bodies were found and the true murderer, Evans’s neighbour John Christie, was arrested and confessed. Justice, at last? Well, you’d be mistaken there! Although Christie confessed to all the murders, this still did not exonerate Evans. He was still deemed a murderer. It was only when a linguist named Svartvik studied the statements in 1968 and found evidence of two very different registers. He proved that statements made by Evans had been altered to sway the jury into giving a ‘guilty’ verdict. The presence and inconsistency of references to time, superfluous detail and tense-switching. When the author switches between tenses indicating an interference at the stage of writing.


Svartik’s findings led to a re-investigation of the Evans case, and eventually it was classed as a miscarriage of justice and played a leading role in the abolition of capital punishment in the UK. It has also led to the birth of forensic linguistics, now an integral element of many legal investigations.

Written and spoken textual evidence has always played an important part in any police investigation or legal case. There is actually an extensive science behind the study of these texts. Forensic linguists are regularly called in to determine the true author of a text, and factors such as their age, gender, emotional state when producing the text. I.e. whether they were under duress, and its veracity. This goes beyond the study of handwriting (graphology), and into such areas as textual cohesion and coherence, syntax, grammar and lexis. These are all considerations that need to be taken on board in the translation of legal documents to ensure that the message has been conveyed accurately.

For instance, the corrupt practice of verballing (wherein police officers alter the statements of witnesses or suspects) may be detected by differences in sentence lengths. As well as differences in spelling or grammar, or even by measuring the lexical density of various segments of the text. This can demonstrate that in fact it was penned by more than one person. To learn more about it, I recommend reading John Olsson’s Introduction to Forensic Linguistics



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