Wednesday 27 April 2011

sound advice

My colleague Martin Barry, formerly of the University of Manchester, has been in the news recently.

You can discount the first sentence of the report to which the link leads. If you read the whole piece you will see that the forensic case Martin helped with did not actually involve “deciphering the words of an urban rapper” but rather testing the authenticity of the time stamp on a recording. If the recording had indeed been made at the time claimed by the accused it would have furnished an alibi to the charge of attempted murder. But Martin showed that the recording was identical to another one with a different time stamp, concluding that the first time stamp was false and the purported alibi invalid.

Martin is the second of my British colleagues, to my knowledge, to have resigned a university post in phonetics in order to go freelance as a forensic voice expert. (The other is Peter French.)

I suspect that most university phoneticians have been approached at one time or another to testify in court cases of this kind. My former colleague John Baldwin used to do a great amount of this kind of work, and unlike most forensic phoneticians relied on his listening skills rather than on instrumental laboratory evidence. (He was the subject of a leading judicial decision that the non-instrumental evidence of a trained phonetician is admissible as ‘expert testimony’ in British courts.)

Personally, I do not generally accept invitations to act in such cases. The only one in which I did become involved, many years ago, actually involved syntax rather than phonetics. It concerned a Trinidadian defendant who was contesting part of a written police statement reporting his words when being interrogated about some crime. The statement was ten pages long, and he agreed that the first eight and a half pages were accurate. He said that the last page and a half, where the damaging admissions were located, was not: he had never said the words alleged.

At the request of his lawyers, I examined the written statement. Then I asked him to come and see me. Without explaining what I was looking for, I set a tape recorder going and fed him with questions for an hour, just to keep him talking — about anything and everything.

I had noticed that in the transcribed sentences that he had denied uttering there were three passive constructions with agent phrases (of the type he was seen by the woman, I was asked by my friend, the window was broken by the children). I knew that for West Indians with the level of education of the accused such constructions are unusual. And so it proved: in the hour’s material I recorded — despite my covert attempts to elicit passive sentences with by-phrases — he uttered not a single one. It was a reasonable inference that the police had invented the parts of the written statement containing the passive sentences. (These sentences might have meant much the same as what he had actually said, but they could not be accepted as a verbatim record, which is what they purported to be.)

When his lawyers reported my finding to the prosecution, the latter decided to drop the main charge and proceed only with a minor one, which the accused admitted. So I never had my day in court.


  1. But it sounds as if you may have helped to avoid an injustice and perhaps deterred the police from falsifying statements, which is a good day's work in my book.

  2. Sounds like typical police-ese. One of the most interesting parts of serving on a jury (in the Midwestern US) was seeing the police witnesses switch into official-testimony mode, which included passivizing quite a few sentences unnaturally.

  3. It also sounds like Sherlock Holmes-ese. It could be turned into a good book by a good writer (or into a good film by a good director).

  4. Dirck,

    Passive-speaking police officers in action? Hmm, how psycholinguistically interesting on so many levels. I wonder if certain speech patterns might correlate with certain personality types like those that would tend to be drawn to law enforcement. No doubt there are studies on this already.

  5. No doubt. I also got the sense that the police were specifically trained to present their testimony in such a way, and that an officer's career trajectory may depend in large part on their ability to deliver testimony in that fashion (combined with the ability to write reports, which doubtless require similar stylistics).

    To be charitable to them, it seems to me that, in contrast to the typical prescriptivist's peeve, the purpose of the police passives is to be very explicit about agency or lack (of knowledge) thereof.


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