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The term ʻforensic linguisticsʼ was first used by Swedish professor Jan Svartvik in 1968. (Ariani et al., 2014, p. 223). Svartvik (1968) analysed the case of Timothy Evans, a Welsh miner with intellectual disabilities who had been convicted, sentenced to death and executed (in 1950) on the basis of statements he had given to police confessing to the murder of his wife and daughter. His guilt was called into question shortly thereafter, when the bones of many additional murder victims who could not have been killed by Evans were discovered in the house in which Evans had lived.
They had been killed by John Christie—a serial killer who, by sheer coincidence, had lived in the same building as Evans. Evans was eventually pardoned posthumously in 1966. Controversy raged around the issue of whether Evans’ confessions were accurate. Svartvik subjected them to a thorough analysis, finding ultimately that although there were many suspicious discrepancies between the statements, there was too little evidence to permit a conclusive judgment on the accuracy of Evans’ confessions.
Although Svartvik seems to have coined the term ‘forensic linguistics’, linguists had been giving expert testimony for quite some time and continue to do so. Given the relatively liberal common-law standards for admitting expert testimony, it should come as no surprise that linguists and language professionals have been introduced to address a broad array of subjects in common-law courtrooms.
They do not, however, always testify as classically ‘scientific’ expert witnesses. Linguistics, as a branch of the humanities, rarely generates ‘falsifiable’ hypotheses which can be tested empirically—although such hypotheses, and experiments, of course exist within linguistics. More often, however, linguists testify based on their experience and understanding, in a context well-defined by Judge Learned Hand, who spoke of ‘general truths derived from … specialised experience’ (Hand, 1901, p. 54).
There has been little controversy specifically about the role of linguistic expert testimony; controversies which arise are generally similar to ones which may crop up in any case involving expert evidence.
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