Abigail Shim

Volume 74, Issue 1, 207-234

The history of linguistics is meager and splintered due to the subject’s interdisciplinary nature. In the postwar era, the discipline attempted to revive as a scientific one, spearheaded by Noam Chomsky and his theory of generative grammar. Linguistics consequently broke away from the predominant structuralist approach of the nineteenth century, returning to rationalist roots. But with the rise of computer technology, Chomsky’s critiques of empirical, applicational linguistic approaches have lost their force. As academic linguistics splinters off again, loses its scientific edge, and regroups with the humanities, linguistics applied in the forensic context may implicate more questions than it answers, fundamental questions about humans and language that linguists are still unable to solve: What is language? Do we use language in a way that is uniquely identifiable? Should we look at language use from a societal or individualized, psychological perspective? This Note seeks to reveal these tensions, by providing an overview of the historical development of forensic linguistics; highlights the theory of idiolect backing the use of forensic linguistic evidence; and critiques idiolect and forensic linguistics’ statistical turn in light of linguistics’ ebbing scientific status. As the larger epistemological questions behind forensic linguistic theory remain indeterminate, authorship identification may remain a question of weight, similarity, and difference for judges and juries to grapple with, highlighting the “sliding scale” problem of reliability in the forensic sciences.