Before anyone shouts out “Audio typing!” I can categorically tell you that is what it is not. After studying for a year-long post-graduate diploma on the subject, I feel qualified to describe exactly what a forensic scribe does and how it fits into the specialist field of forensic linguistics.
But first I must explain what a forensic linguist does.
Any form of text….whether letter, typed document, mobile phone text, email – involves linguistics; the art of ‘language’. Standard linguists may study the development of our language, how new words come into our vocabularies, how old ones disappear and why one person’s writing style differs from the next. A forensic linguist is concerned with the same things, but only when examples of these are involved in a crime.
For instance, when a ransom note is sent, the fear that a last will and testament has been forged, when a mobile phone message is supposed to have been sent by a certain person involved with a criminal case – these are just a few of the reasons why a forensic linguist may be consulted to assist detectives with a criminal case.
What a forensic linguist will do, as part of his own investigations, is look at other samples of the suspect’s writing or electronic messages. Not only will he be looking for similarities, he will also be looking for outright differences too – concerning the tone, style of language, syntax, sentence length, word length, context and content of the message. He will then present his findings and opinion to the court who will determine whether it supports their judgement of the case. Not only does a linguist concern himself with written text, but also audio samples; voice messages, emergency telephone recordings etc.
Being such a specialist, he may not have the time to sit and transcribe an audio recording or dissect reams of text to find out an average word or sentence length; he may not have the time to find the differences or correlations of written text himself either. This is where the forensic scribe comes in.
“But an audio typist could transcribe a recording” I hear you say. The most important thing to remember is that a forensic transcriber is dealing with criminal data. Most recordings used as evidence are recorded wth heightened emotion, often with screams or other loud voices and background noise – not the calm, clear voice of a boss to his secretary recorded in his quiet, private office.
During my studies I was constantly exposed to distressing, emergency audio recordings; ones containing wildly different accents and dialects and ones that were of very poor audio quality – all with the intention of training my aural sense to hear things that the average person would not.
Not only that, but the forensic scribe has to record every utterance for court purposes. Even after many replays, sometimes some ‘words’ are impossible to be heard but must still be recorded. Even an inaudible noise can still be evidence. Imagine the witness statement saying that the suspect left the scene after a certain time – an inaudible voice/noise, if eventually proved by other audio specialists to be made by the suspect, could place them still present – therefore, this ‘utterance’ has the power to underpin or disprove an alibi. So nothing is insignificant.
The important thing to remember is that the forensic scribe prepares the text ready for the linguist to form his expert opinion on the findings. The scribe does not influence the linguist in any way but just plays the role of gatherer.
However, I hope you’ll agree – an important, specialist role, nonetheless.
2016 Update: Though this post was written a few years ago, it still remains one of my most popular, boosted by interest in the forensic sciences as a whole through shows such as CSI, and people looking to learn more about the forensic linguistics’ discipline. I hold workshops in conjunction with Think Forensic on forensic linguistics, giving attendees of all ages an introduction into the significance of words in a criminal context or situation. Contact me at email@example.com for more information.