Coppers, codes, and curses: The fascinating field of forensic linguistics
Summoning all crime show, film noir, and detective fiction junkies!
Before continuing on the child language journey (with part II in this series), we’re taking a quick and quizzically unrelated detour. I want to recommend a forensic linguistics podcast that I’ve been listening to, called EN CLAIR.
It’s produced by Dr. Claire Hardaker, who is a forensic corpus linguist at Lancaster University in Northwest England. In her own words, a forensic corpus linguist is someone “who looks at large criminal or legal linguistic datasets. For example, this might be a million tweets of online abuse.”
Dr. Claire’s summary of her podcast:
“En clair is a casebook of forensic linguistic cases, literary detection, and language mysteries. It also looks at codes, cryptography, undeciphered languages, and linguistic myths and legends. Each episode presents a case of linguistic intrigue or controversy from ancient history to the present day.”
I’ve listened to episodes on the Pendle Witch Trials, on messages hidden in music, on the Elliott vs. Google trademark case (where I learned the amazing term genericide), and to miniseries on Enigma (the WWII mechanical cipher device) and the Yorkshire Ripper. It’s very intriguing stuff.
A short background on the field in general:
Forensic linguistics applies linguistic expertise to the investigation of crimes, judicial procedure, and the law.
Examples of the kinds of things that forensic linguists work on (often in the context of criminal cases, but also for civil cases or other legal scenarios):
- Text authorship (or forensic stylistics) –
- Determining the author of a text, by comparing it to a suspect’s known writing.
- Text types can range from letters, books, suicide notes, confessions, phone texts, and social media, to insurance fraud case documents and ransom demands.
- Voice identification (or forensic phonetics) –
- Deals with the acoustics of the voice in recorded speech, and determining whether transcriptions of recordings are accurate.
- Discourse analysis –
- Analyzing written or (recorded) oral language, to make deductions relevant to a case based on discourse structure and markers – such as who introduces topics, who interrupts and when, or backchanneling.
- Dialectology –
- Determining a person’s dialect, often to differentiate a suspect’s speech from incriminating recordings.
- Used in the Yorkshire Ripper case (during investigation of the now-known-to-be-hoax tapes).
- Trademark / intellectual property cases –
- Examining disputes over trademarks, etc.
- Famous cases include McDonald’s defense of its protected “Mc” prefix, and the Google case I referred to above (wherein Google defended its trademarked name against accusations that verb use of the world google had come to mean, generically, “search the internet”).
 Which, I just realized upon trying to link the word to a dictionary entry, hasn’t yet been added to either dictionary.com or merriam-webster.com.
 I’ve culled and consolidated these categories from http://www.languageandlaw.org/FORENSIC.HTM and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forensic_linguistics.
 The podcast goes into detail on this, but the two linguists / dialectologists who analyzed the tapes tried to convince police that the tapes came from someone other than the Yorkshire Ripper – they were right, but police ignored their arguments.
*Photo attribution: “Lights, fog and darkness”