In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language and Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Compilations
  • Handbooks and Reference Works
  • Journals

Linguistics Language and Law
Tammy Gales, Lena Naumova
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0020


Language and law, sometimes referred to as forensic linguistics, has been defined in a variety of ways, some of which focus on the language evidence of criminal and civil law cases while others deal with statutory language and how it is used in the courtroom. Here, language and law is considered an area in which the research, principles, and methods of the discipline of linguistics are applied to legal contexts that deal with various areas of language and the law such as: (1) statutory language, courtroom discourse, translation, and interpretation in multilingual contexts; (2) language and the criminal justice system, including police interviews, undercover sting operations, courtroom testimony, and confessions; (3) language evidence in civil cases such as trademarks, contracts, copyright, discrimination, and product warning labels; and (4) other legal cases in which language is often the primary evidence, such as authorship analysis and speaker identification. Today, the understanding and acceptance of this interdisciplinary field is rapidly growing and language and law is now internationally recognized in countries such as Brazil, China, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In these countries and others, robust academic and professional organizations are working toward best practices for expert witnesses and practitioners who address linguistic issues that intersect with the law.

General Overviews

A handful of introductory books have been published on language and law, highlighting different aspects of the field. Gibbons 2003 provides a comprehensive overview of language as it is used by and affects those within the legal system. The expanded third edition of Olsson and Luchjenbroers 2014 includes a new section about language in a legal setting and forensic phonetics, but the contents emphasize issues of questioned authorship and textual evidence. Coulthard and Johnson 2007 and Solan and Tiersma 2005 provide the most balanced coverage of the field with the former focusing slightly more on the forensic side and the latter focusing slightly more on the legal side. An edited compilation, Turell 2005 is the first overview of the field published in Spanish and covers a broad spectrum of papers across the field, highlighting forensic phonetic methods and applications.

  • Coulthard, Malcolm, and Alison Johnson. 2007. An introduction to forensic linguistics: Language in evidence. New York: Routledge.

    This well-organized introductory book examines legal language, the structures of legal genres, and the collection and testing of linguistic evidence. It also covers the roles of the forensic linguist and forensic phonetician and reviews methods of investigating cases of questioned authorship and plagiarism.

  • Gibbons, John. 2003. Forensic linguistics: An introduction to language in the justice system. Malden, MA: Wiley.

    This overview explores the nature of legal language, including the language of contracts, police investigations, and prisoner management. Also included is a discussion of the disadvantages faced by ethnic minorities, children, and abused women within the legal system.

  • Olsson, John, and June Luchjenbroers. 2014. Forensic linguistics. 3d ed. New York: Bloomsbury.

    Originally published in 2004. The first editions of this introductory book included chapters on the history and methods of authorship analysis, linguistic evidence, and deception detection. The third edition draws on the expertise of well-known scholars and includes new sections on forensic phonetics and cybercrime.

  • Solan, Lawrence, and Peter Tiersma. 2005. Speaking of crime: The language of criminal justice. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Through a plethora of authentic examples, this easy-to-read introductory book demonstrates how language functions in arrests, investigations, interrogations, confessions, and trials. Chapters provide summaries of how language is currently used in legal contexts and offer helpful suggestions for best practices moving forward.

  • Turell, M. Teresa, ed. 2005. Lingüística forense, lengua y derecho: Conceptos, métodos y aplicaciones. Barcelona: Institut Universitari de Lingüística Aplicada, Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

    This collection of papers in Spanish is the result of the first workshop on forensic linguistics at the Institute of Applied Linguistics. The overview covers topics on forensic linguistic methods, applications, and language within legal and criminal contexts, with a special focus on forensic phonetics.

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