Lawrence Abu Hamdan

The freedom of speech itself

Text by Christabel Stewart and Ajay RS Hothi

“Since 1984, there have been more than 5,000 cases where the phonetic make-up of someone’s voice has been a significant aspect in determining their legal culpability.”

This statistic is taken from the half-hour audio documentary The Freedom of Speech Itself, by the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, which was exhibited at the Showroom in London as part of the ongoing project Aural Contract (2010 - present). For the ­documentary, Lawrence interviewed a range of linguistic specialists and forensic speech analysts, as well as former UK asylum seekers who had been subject to a series of speech tests in which they had to recount their experiences.

Like iris scanning or thermal emotion recording, this is a method of using biological data to assess a person’s truthfulness for legal purposes. The body of an asylum seeker may show signs of torture, but these are not always admissible as evidence. It is thought that the voice cannot lie.

One figure in the documentary is Mohammed, a former asylum seeker from Palestine. After speaking to him on the telephone, an agent from a Scandinavian linguistic analysis bureau declared him to be Syrian. The reason? Mohammed had used the word “bandora” for “tomato”, rather than the classical Arabic word “banadura”. On that basis, the agent ruled “with certainty” that Mohammed’s claims were false.

Surely any monolingual country (the UK, for example) is only nominally so, when you take into account regional accents, immigration and the merging of communities and languages? And in any case, if there were such a thing as a single native language, wouldn’t its use still vary among asylum seekers, whose phonetics would surely be altered by itinerancy? It seems that for the arbitrators, it’s a case of tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to. § 

Image: The Freedom of Speech Itself. Contour voiceprints illustrating the frequency and amplitude of two different voices saying the word “you”.

  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan