What is Forensic Phonetics? Phonetics can assist in solving crimes
Phonetics is the scientific study of speech. It is a branch of linguistics, which is the scientific study of language (not of individual languages, but the human faculty of language in general). Forensic phonetics is the application of expertise in phonetics to assist in legal and law enforcement contexts, and the extension of research on phonetics to topics relevant to the legal system.
The importance of expertise
Most people know a great deal about speech, in the sense they can use and interpret spoken language with extraordinary skill and subtlety. On the other hand, people's knowledge, in the sense of ability to describe and analyse the properties of sounds and voices, is usually very limited - even if they are experts in a related field, are knowledgeable about grammar, etymology or foreign languages, or are highly confident ear-witnesses. In particular, audio engineers do not have the expertise needed for forensic speech analysis.
Phonetics is a science, just like engineering, chemistry or psychology.
In legal and law-enforcement contexts, where people's life and liberty can be at stake, it is essential to be sure that all judgments about speech and language are evaluated by properly qualified experts in the appropriate branch of linguistics. Here is an article that outlines some of the pitfalls of failure to recognise the importance of linguistic expertise.
Rodman, Robert. 2002. Linguistics and the law: how knowledge of, or ignorance of, elementary linguistics may affect the dispensing of justice. International Journal of Speech Language and the Law 9:92-101.
About Dr Fraser
Helen studied phonetics and linguistics at Macquarie Univesity and the University of Edinburgh, then lectured for many years at the University of New England (Australia). She has given expert evidence in legal cases on an occasional basis since 1993.
She now focuses mainly on forensic transcription, but is also interested in general issues to do with speech and the legal system, including language analysis for the determination of origin (LADO).