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CFL Interviews

Fleur van der Houwen
March 2015

"The police in the Netherlands do not receive any linguistic training. The discipline of Forensic Linguistics is new and the police are mostly unaware of it."

Dr. Fleur van der Houwen is a lecturer at the Department for Languages, Literature and Communication at the Free University of Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). Her research is mostly in the area of Forensic Linguistics and she is also a sociolinguist with research interests in linguistic variation and change. Dr van der Houwen’s main specialism is institutional interaction and, more specifically, how lay people interact with institutions, both within and outside of the judicial setting. In March 2015, she visited Aston University’s Centre for Forensic Linguistics and gave a lecture entitled The right to silence and ‘paper voices’ in Dutch criminal court, which examined the judges’ linguistic role in the judicial system. Vlad Mackevic, a PhD student at the CFL, interviewed Dr van der Houwen.

When did you first develop your interest in Forensic Linguistics?

This was during my PhD studies. I studied in Los Angeles, at the University of Southern California. I came to court with a neighbour of mine who was summoned to do jury duty. She is Belgian and the letter was sent by mistake because one cannot be called for jury duty without being a US citizen. Yet, it was her responsibility to inform the court that she cannot be a member of the jury otherwise she could get a $5,000 fine for not performing her duty. She went to court, and, as I was waiting for her, I saw a daytime TV show on a screen in the hall room. The show was called Judge Judy. I was very surprised to see how the judge on the show went about the cases. They were all small claims cases and I was wondering why they were showing such low-profile cases on TV. There was also a jury member in the waiting area and I thought as I saw him watch the show, whether these kinds of shows are the best example for people who are going to be present at more serious cases later. This is when I started thinking how a layperson would actually interact in court.

What kind of work do you usually do with the police? Do you remember the first case you’ve ever analysed?

 Most of the cases I have worked with have been authorship and variation cases. For my first case, I was contacted directly by the police. The Dutch system is different from the one in the UK – it is inquisitorial rather than adversarial – and the police prosecute the suspects. Therefore, the police require an expert’s advice. I have never been an expert witness – that happens rather rarely in any case, so I mostly advise the police which direction their research could potentially take.

For the first case, we were contacted by someone in The Hague and asked if we could help them with profiling the author of some threat letters. Back then I had never done anything related to forensic linguistics. The question we were asked was whether the author was a native speaker of Dutch. There were no obvious non-native mistakes, and there were also idioms that were quite rare. Therefore, I decided that a non-native speaker could not have produced them, especially in combination. There was some doubts as to the author was a native speaker because there were mistakes in his writing: he spelt the Dutch word wordt (‘he/she/it becomes’) as word. However, the missing t at the end of the third person singular verbs is a native mistake and we linguists can make the police aware of this.

As regards the famous cases… the majority of the cases we receive are already in the news. There are almost no cases that reach me that are not public. If I were to mention a particular one, it would be the case of a stalker of two media celebrities – a brother and a sister. The police brought the stalker’s letters to me and my task was to identify whether the author of the letters is the same person.

It is rather curious that it is very hard to get feedback on your work in these cases. The police hardly ever come back to you, so you do not know whether your profile was right or wrong. It is possible to check things like the author’s age or where they are from once the suspect is caught and convicted, but not the other parts of the profile.

As a linguist, the most interesting case for me that I have ever analysed involved text messages sent via Whatsapp. There was a lot of data and it was very interesting to see how people adjust their style depending on who they are talking to. In this case, the victim died, and it was disputed whether the last messages on her phone were sent by her or by someone else. The last message contained an emoticon and the victim’s girlfriend said she never used emoticons. However, it was discovered that she did use emoticons with her boyfriend; therefore, our style of communication depends on our interlocutors.

How has the discipline of forensic linguistics impacted the communities of legal practice, especially the awareness of the judges and the police of the multiple issues?

The police in the Netherlands do not receive any linguistic training. The discipline of Forensic Linguistics is new and the police are mostly unaware of it. I am registered with the police academy, so I get requests from all over the country, but there is little internal awareness among the police. Speaker identification and forensic phonetics are more known, but this is not what I do.

What about the lay people in the system? Does research into sociolinguistics or forensic linguistics help integrate laypeople into the legal system? In your presentation you demonstrated that judges show power and authority in court through language. What about support?

I have just done a paper on minors’ court. When it comes to minors, the judge really does explain complicated legal terminology – e.g. the right to silence. The language that the prosecutor uses is very formal, but the judge simplifies it. It is the case not only with minors but also with people who have low IQs or disabilities – basically, in court, everyone is at a disadvantage, even very proficient speakers. However, most people simply would not admit that they do not understand something. And of course, interviews with vulnerable witnesses are conducted by people who have training in psychology.

What is the future of forensic linguistics in the Netherlands?

The police are not very open to be trained because they are not aware of what we have to offer. Perhaps it would be a good idea to make linguistic training an official part of officer training in the police academy? We are working towards this goal. Moreover, forensic linguistic training could be integrated into the education of criminologists and lawyers, people who work in the field. This way a greater degree of collaboration between academia and the world of legal practice could be achieved.

Related Links

Fleur van der Houwen's webpage
Fleur's staff page at Vrije Universiteit

© Centre for Forensic Linguistics, Aston University, Birmingham, UK, 2013