First Research Chair in Forensic Linguistics on the Continent

A slight possibility exists that the murder trial of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol could have taken a different turn had a forensic linguist been called on to testify. According to the security police, Timol committed suicide in 1971 and left behind a note. However, in 2018, former police officer Joao Rodrigues was arrested for his murder, but the officer died last year, and the case was struck from the role.

A forensic linguist could have explored the testimony of former anti-apartheid activist Ronnie Kasrils, who said Timol could not speak Afrikaans, yet his suicide letter contained knowledge of that language.

Forensic linguistics deals with language and the law, says Professor Russell H Kaschula, the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) new Research Chair in Forensic Linguistics and Multilingualism. This Chair, a first on the continent, is funded by the UWC Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor José Frantz

“Arguably, language is law, and law is language. Law, after all, deals with the art of persuasion, which has language at its core. The importance of this relationship is particularly relevant in a multilingual and multicultural society such as South Africa. It is important to empower both lawyers and linguists or language practitioners to understand this important link,” said Prof Kaschula, who is not only a linguist but also a lawyer.

“This will avoid certain cases being decided on cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, for example, where there is no equivalence of meaning dealing with a specific word in an African language and its English translation.”

Forensic Linguistics is a relatively new field of study in South Africa, though it is well established in the USA and Australia.

Research in this area of expertise is highly interdisciplinary, involving psychology, criminology, policing, and law, among others. This research will help to improve access to justice and ensure that the constitutional mandate for language rights is practically implemented and realised.

The university’s goals are to set up the first Forensic Linguistics (Language and Law) and Multilingualism Research Chair/Centre in Africa which will offer Honours, Master’s and PhD programmes in forensic linguistics, and to collaborate with other university stakeholders, including in the area of forensic history. 

Full-time Honours and Master’s courses in forensic linguistics have already been approved and will be offered in the Departments of African Language Studies and Linguistics, respectively.