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An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Language in Evidence


An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Language in Evidence Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson. Chapter 6: The work of the forensic linguist. – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Language in Evidence

An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics Language
in Evidence
  • Malcolm Coulthard and Alison Johnson. Chapter 6
    The work of the forensic linguist.

6. The McDonalds trademark morpheme (2)
  • In the past, McDonalds sucessfully prevented the
    use of McBagels
  • Wanted to prevent a chain of hotels called
    McSleep a deliberate attempt to draw on the
    goodwill and reputation of the McDonalds brand.
  • The McLanguage advertising campaign ? McFish,
  • But Mc is a common component of Scots names
    reputation for frugality.
  • Shuy, on behalf of Quality Inns, used a corpus
    linguistics approach and found 56 general terms
    like McArt, McCinema, McSurgery, McPrisons, and
    the trade names McThrift Motor Inn and McTek, so
    Mc has an independent meaning of basic,
    convenient, inexpensive and standardised.

The McDonalds trademark morpheme (2)
  • McDonalds responded with interviews and
    questionnaires customers did indeed associate
    Mc with their company.
  • Judge ruled in favour of McDonalds, giving them
    massive control over the use of the morpheme.
  • OED described a McJob as an unstimulating,
    low-paid job with few prospects, especially one
    created by the expansion of the service sector.
  • Other phonetic similarities can cause confusion,
    e.g. Becks Beer and Ex Bier, Listerine and
    Listogen, Smirnoff and Sarnoff, WMEE and WMCZ
    (Shuy, 2002 Linguistic Battles in Trademark

Syntactic Complexity in a Letter
  • Consider the following extract from a letter on
    how to claim benefits (Levi, 1993)
  • If your AFDC financial assistance benefits are
    continued at the present level and the fair
    hearing decides your AFDC financial assistance
    reduction was correct, the amount of AFDC
    assistance received to which you were not
    entitled will be recouped from future AFDC
    payments or must be paid back if your AFDC is
  • Complex features include multiple negatives,
    complex embeddings, passive verbs without
    subjects, difficult combinations of logical
  • Could it have been written more simply?

Lexico-grammatical ambiguity
  • A Mr Granderson pleaded guilty to a charge of
    destroying mail, for which the maximum prison
    sentence was six months, although there was the
    option of a fine plus probation.
  • The judge took this option, giving a fine and 60
    months probabition
  • Subsequently Granderson violated his probation by
    being caught in possession of cocaine.
  • In such cases the law instructs the court to
    revoke the original sentence of probation and
    sentence the defendant to not less than one third
    of the original sentence.
  • This presents the court with a problem if the
    original sentence refers to probation,
    imposing a sentence of not less than one third,
    could in fact reduce the penalty, as he had more
    than 20 months left.

Granderson case (2)
  • It was decided to sentence him to 20 months in
    jail, which rather than being not less than one
    third was in fact over 3 times greater than the
    original maximum prison sentence.
  • In the appeal, Kaplan claimed that this was
    linguistically inadmissable, since one cannot
    allow an ambiguous item to have both of its
    meanings simultaneously the court had
    interpreted original sentence as imprisonment
    for determining the type of punishment, but to
    the initial imposition of 60 months probation
    for determining the length of sentence.
  • The supreme court reduced the prison sentence to
    2 months.

Lexical meaning
  • 1. Eades (1994). A Torres Strait islander had
    used the dialect word killem in describing a
    fight with a man who subsequently died.
  • But killem does not only mean kill, but can
    mean hit so he may not have confessed to
  • 2. A Kurdish Iraqi refugee accused of money
    laundering on behalf of an Islamist terror group
    was referred to as kak in an address book found
    at a terrorist training camp.
  • kak means commander in Arabic, but simply Mr
    or brother in Kurdish.

Pragmatic meaning
  • Grice (1975)s quantity maxim
  • 1. Make your contribution as informative as is
    required (for the current purposes of the
  • 2. Do not make your contribution more informative
    than is required.
  • Consider these in the light of extracts from
    William Powers confession (from the trial of
    the Birmingham Six)

Extracts from William Powers Confession
  • Walker was carrying two white plastic carrier
  • Hunter was carrying three white plastic carrier
  • Richard was carrying one white plastic carrier
  • Walker gave me one of the white plastic bags
  • Hughie gave J. Walker his white plastic bag

Analysis of Powers alleged confession
  • Our knowledge of the rules of conversational
    composition tells us that it is unlikely that
    Power would have used the combination numeral
    white plastic carrier bag even once, let
    alone three times.
  • It is a noted feature of speech that speakers do
    not normally produce long noun phrases of this
    kind rather they assemble complex information in
    two or three bites, as in Powers interview
    with the police, considered more authentic
  • Power Hed got a holdall and two bags.
  • Watson What kind of bags?
  • Power They were white, I think they were carrier

Grices quantity maxim and product warnings
  • Tiersma (2002) discusses Dumass (1992) cigarette
    packet examples Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon
    Monoxide, taken from a case where smokers were
    suing companies for not warning them adequately
    about the dangers of smoking.
  • The warning not only presupposes that the reader
    knows that carbon monoxide is dangerous in small
    quantities, but can work through a chain of
    inference to the real warning, which is now
    expressed explicitly on British cigarette
    packets Smoking Kills.

Challenges for non-native speakers
  • Regina vs. Lapointe and Sicotte two
    French-speaking defendants showed different
    levels of English in tape-recorded interviews and
    that attributed to them in typewritten
  • The Kim letters were purportedly the will of
    Violet Hussien, written in an exaggerated
    Hawaiian creole (e.g. missing out articles,
    subjects and objects, some auxiliary and cupola
    verbs, plural and tense morphemes), and made out
    to benefit a couple of neighbours.
  • Language testing for immigration (2004) do
    speakers of Harazagi come from Pakistan or
    Afghanistan ?