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Forensic Linguistics

Course Description: This course takes a sociolinguistic and discourse analytic approach to understanding justice and the law.  From describing and defining state power, defining transgressions and naming crimes, to giving testimony, legislating new rights, constructing arguments, interviewing, deposing, soliciting confessions, judging and disclosing victimization, the law relies on language to make sense of and adjudicate what cultures deem “deviant”  and “normal,” “criminal and law-abiding”, “guilty and non-guilty” and “right” and “wrong.”  We will focus on how key concepts in linguistics can be studied through the lens of law and culture research. Such key concepts include: sentence construction, euphemisms, direct and indirect quotations, definitions, narratives and questions. The course is divided into two parts:  Part I: The letter of the law and Part II: Just living.


Part I: The Letter of the law:   We will examine the idea of “the letter of the law” by studying how language—spoken and written—plays a role in how the crimes of domestic violence, rape, infanticide, assault and homicide are conceptualized and dealt with through language. In this part of the course, our linguistic study will consist of police interviews, applications for protective orders, the interface of law and medicine in collecting evidence, the language of mediation and of the language of confessions.  We will also examine linguistic units of analyses that will include questions, narratives, direct quotations, indirect reported speech, intertextual references, speech acts and politeness.


Part II: Just living:  We will investigate the idea of “just living: culture, law and the language of place” in the second part of the course. We will use linguistic analyses to try to understand how humans conceptualize, grant and obtain rights to a home. We will problematize this taken-for-granted idea of shelter to understand how it gets adjudicated in the legal system.  Additionally, the law is informed by cultural ideologies about property, possessions, and different people’s rights to have a home, to be from a place and to change or maintain the city they live in. Key linguistic concepts that we will examine are linguistic landscapes, definitions of public/private as social realms and sovereign concepts, the public good, and blight. We will see that cities are built through language, the language of law and writing on the land. We will see how the law is available to people to regulate who has the right to write on the land—both literally and metaphorically.

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