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Maria Teresa Turell
May 2008

"The application of the study of the idiolect to forensic linguistics is fundamental."

Maria Teresa Turell worked at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain), where she was Professor of English Linguistics, Director of ForensicLab (the forensic linguistics laboratory at the University's Institut Universitari de Linguistica Aplicada), and Academic Director of the Master's programme in Forensic Linguistics. During a visit to the Centre for Forensic Linguistics she spoke to Nicci MacLeod about her pioneering work in forensic linguistics in Spain.

Your PhD was in Catalan philology, how did you first become interested in forensic linguistics?

It was a smooth development from my interest and dedication to language variation and change for more than 25 years. Back in the mid-eighties I became interested in sociolinguistic variation, and for more than two decades I devoted myself to the analysis of the variable nature of Catalan, Spanish and English, studying several speech communities in apparent and real time and describing them in terms of the direction of linguistic change, who the innovators of change are, what routes linguistic change takes etc. One of the many areas of study of forensic linguistics is language as evidence, and both the theoretical and methodological bases of this area are structured around the concept of the individual's idiolect. In essence, the idiolect has to do with individual language variation, and so I view this area of forensic linguistics as another dimension of language variation analysis.

You are a director of the ForensicLab at IULA, would you mind giving us an overview of the sorts of tasks you are asked to carry out in that role?

As director of Forensiclab at IULA I am responsible for supervising all expert witness work in which the laboratory is engaged and ensuring quality, validity and reliability of my performance and that of my associate consultants. The areas of consultancy are wide-ranging and include plagiarism, authorship attribution, speaker identification and linguistic profiling to name but a few. I am also the supervisor of four on-going PhD dissertations: two on speaker identification, one on authorship attribution and one on deception in interviewing. As director of the Master's degree programme in Forensic Linguistics, which is the first program in Forensic Linguistics offered in Spanish worldwide, I am responsible for proposing and supervising the academic contents of the two diplomas around which this Master's is structured.

Your most recent and ongoing research is concerned with idiolectometry, can you explain this and perhaps give us a brief overview of the sorts of findings you've made so far?

The project Idiolectometry applied to forensic linguistics, funded by Ministry of Education and Culture (EXPLORA HUM2007-29140-E) aims to study speakers' idiolect in its application to forensic linguistics. Idiolectometry has very interestingly measured the linguistic distance between speakers and has established the borderline between different idiolects. This project will explore and develop the possibility of measuring the linguistic differences between spoken and written idiolects and each individual's idiolectal distance, so that an Index of Idiolectal Similitude (IIS), which will compare several linguistic samples and calculate the linguistic distance between them, can be obtained. In other words, it is a question of establishing what kind of idiolectal similitude one needs to observe before one can say that two linguistic samples (spoken or written) have been produced by the same person. This is clearly a 'problem-based' project and we think that the application of the study of the idiolect to forensic linguistics is fundamental since this application will allow linguists acting as expert witnesses in court to unmistakably identify speakers or writers by comparing a disputed recording or written text and a set of non-disputed spoken or written texts from the set of options chosen by each individual speaker or writer. So far, we have applied the IIS protocol to the phonological modules of Catalan and Spanish. Preliminary results confirm our stated hypotheses.

Are there any differences you've become aware of in terms of the extent to which forensic linguistic evidence is accepted in Spain as compared to the UK/US?

I frequently ask myself why it is that the launching of forensic linguistics in Spain is so difficult, particularly in the area of language as evidence. I think that one of the reasons to explain this developmental difficulty has to do with the nature of our judicial system. The Spanish judicial system is based on civil law, also known as continental law and, unlike the common law system of the UK and the US, it is framed almost exclusively around the judge. Another reason could be related to the fact that, although both the Ley de Enjuiciamiento Civil (Civil Code) and the Ley de Enjuiciamiento Criminal (Criminal Code) dictate that if there is one expert witness report, the judge should request a second report, this is not always the case. A third reason has to do with the judicial actors' (that is Spanish lawyers, solicitors and attorneys, and the citizens themselves) ignorance of the real activity that a forensic linguist can perform.

What are you hopes for the future of forensic linguistics? Are there any particular arms of the field you think are particularly important to develop?

One of the aspects of language as evidence on which we should be working as forensic linguists is the achievement of a base rate knowledge for linguistic written data that will give us comparative knowledge of population distributions, against which disputed criminal texts can be analysed more reliably. This achievement might involve measuring the impossible because it may be an impossible task to count on samples of written texts for every individual and for all the possible realizations and all genres and registers of an individual's written idiolect.

What's next for you?

ForensicLab has been awarded a new project, Forensic idiolectometry and index of idiolectal similitude (IIS), funded by the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovacion (FFI2008-2011-03583/FILO) to extend the use of the IIS to the phonological module of English, and to the morphosyntactic and discourse-pragmatic modules of Catalan, Spanish and English.

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Related links

ForensicLab at Institut Universitari de Linguistica Aplicada
Idiolectometry project
IULA's Master's programme in Forensic Linguistics




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