Forensic linguistics holds promise for South Africa’s legal system

When people can testify in their own language, this increases their access to justice. Shutterstock

Most people are familiar with the tenets of forensic science: the pieces of evidence found at a crime scene that, thanks to technology, can be interpreted to provide solutions. But not many are aware that another discipline, forensic linguistics, can play a valuable role in interpreting evidence.

It’s a relatively young discipline. Swedish Linguistics professor Jan Svartvik recorded its first mention in 1968. At the time, he was linguistically analysing a set of legal statements – made by people who had been accused of crimes and given to the police. Svartvik’s analysis helped to secure several convictions. It also helped police understand how language holds clues about someone’s guilt, knowledge of an event, or innocence.

Since then, forensic linguistics has developed into an established research area in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Forensic linguists are called as expert witnesses in court cases to provide linguistic analysis of legal documents. Among other skills, they are able to identify authors based on the language used in a document or statement and to provide legal interpretation or translation in a court room.

They also provide expert evidence on determining the parameters of language rights, for example whether an accused person has the right to be tried in a language they fully understand and what the implications of this are in attaining true justice (especially in multilingual societies).

Scholar Tim Grant has suggested that forensic linguistics is an attempt to improve the delivery of justice. It is this element that makes it a particularly relevant discipline for the South African context – both for linguists and legal practitioners.

South Africa’s legal system privileges only one of the country’s official languages, English. Interpreters are in short supply for the country’s African languages and are often under qualified. This means the vast majority of South Africans, whose home language is not English, do not get the level of justice they deserve.

Forensic linguistics can improve this situation by helping to create informed language policies in the legal context, as well as how languages should be used in courts of law. And having properly trained experts who understand the intricacies of language and the law will go a long way to contributing to social justice in a multilingual society.

In action

Forensic linguistics is taught at a few universities in the southern African region. There are approximately 20 trained forensic linguists in South Africa. Rhodes University in South Africa offers it as an Honours course in African Language Studies. In October 2018 the university hosted a colloquium that drew linguists and lawyers from around the country; this revealed a growing interest in the discipline and its implications for local courts.

As it stands, forensic linguistics in South Africa is essentially an interdisciplinary research area. It primarily addresses the use of language in the country’s legal system. This relates both to translation or interpretation, and to recognising the value that forensic linguists can add as expert witnesses.

English is the language of record in South Africa’s courts. There are instances where, for example, a sworn statement is provided in an African language.

It’s then translated by a police officer into English, and that version is presented in court. But the English version may be very different to the original, since police officers aren’t trained translators. If a professional forensic linguist were employed in these instances, they would be able to pick up legal and linguistic inaccuracies. Alternatively, they could act as an interpreter or translator.

Forensic linguists can also serve as expert witnesses. With their training, they are able to testify about the language used in a particular case.

There have been a few recent South African examples of language playing a vital role in court. One was the case of anti apartheid activist Ahmed Timol, who died in 1971 while in police custody. The police always claimed he’d committed suicide, but in 2018 a former police officer was charged with murdering Timol.

During that trial, former cabinet minister and anti-apartheid activist Ronnie Kasrils testified that, while Timol’s alleged suicide note was written in Afrikaans, Timol did not speak Afrikaans. A forensic linguist would be able to prove or disprove this, using their expertise.

The growth of forensic linguistics would be good news for South Africa’s justice system. This would require a fresh curriculum, developed with legal and linguistic expertise, at the country’s universities. Rhodes University has started this journey; hopefully others will soon follow.

Zikho Dana, Sandisiwe Mafalala, Ntombizethu Nyakambi, and Tholly Thwala, who were all Honours students in Forensic Linguistics at Rhodes University, contributed to this article. Annelise de Vries, a doctoral student from the University of Johannesburg, contributed to this article.