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The Linguist on the Witness Stand: Forensic Linguistics in American Courts

Peter Tiersma and Lawrence M. Solan
Language
Vol. 78, No. 2 (Jun., 2002), pp. 221-239
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3086556
Page Count: 19
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The Linguist on the Witness Stand: Forensic Linguistics in American Courts
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Abstract

It is becoming increasingly common for linguists to testify as expert witnesses in both civil and criminal trials. Often linguistic expertise is clearly helpful to the judge or jury. Based on published judicial opinions, from which we draw our data, it appears that courts have allowed linguists to testify on such issues as the probable origin of a speaker, the comprehensibility of a text, whether a particular defendant understood the Miranda warning, and the phonetic similarity of two competing trademarks. In other areas the admissibility of linguistic testimony has been more controversial, including author and speaker identification, discourse analysis, the meaning of legal texts, and the comprehensibility of jury instructions. Reasons for judicial reluctance to admit linguistic expertise include concerns that it is not sufficiently reliable, the belief that issues like the meaning of a text can just as well be decided by a jury, and sometimes even institutional and political considerations. Despite such reservations, courts generally recognize that there is a place for linguistic expertise in appropriate cases.

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