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Could language catch a killer?

Published on 16/10/19

Tom explains how language can be used for the greater good

Tom Pallen, a Year 13 English Language student at Jane Austen College has written an article following a lecture regarding the study of forensic linguistics.

Tom is in his final year of studying A-Level English Language, he has applied to continue his study of linguistics at Oxford University and The University of York. He recently attended a lecture where the guest speakers were linguistic academics from Lancaster University and decided to share some interesting ideas from this lecture to inspire other pupils to consider English Language beyond G.C.S.E.

Could Language Catch A Killer?

When we speak, we don’t often think about what we say. Often, as soon as we say it, we think it’s gone, forgotten about, lost to time. But there’s more to language than you might think. Even though it seems small and inconsequential, the words you say identify who you are, where you come from and they could even solve a murder...

The key to forensic linguistics is working out a person’s idiolect; their distinct way of speaking that’s unique to them. You may notice that people around you say, and write, things differently to you: do you use exclamation marks in text messages? Do you spell analyse with an s or a z? Which forms of text abbreviations do you use? That’s essentially what forensic linguists look out for: words that show where you come from, when you were born and how you see the world. Every sentence is a little clue as to who you are.

Let’s take an example. At a recent talk I attended at East Norfolk Sixth Form College, Lancaster academics Matthew Gillings and Will Dance told the story of Jenny Nicholl: a nineteen year old girl who one day mysteriously went missing without a trace. Soon after her disappearance, friends and family of Jenny all received text messages which implied she had simply run away. Messages like “keeping phone of.tell dad car jumps out of gear” and “i aint cumin back and the pigs wont find me”. 

Just looking at the texts, you may think it proves nothing. But, when forensic linguists studied Jenny’s text messages, they noticed that when she messaged her friends she typed “fone” and not “phone”. Her mother said she also worked in a police station, and would have more respect than to call policemen “pigs”. Furthermore, when the linguists studied the prosecutor’s prime suspects text messages, they noted that he had difficulty spelling “off”, spelling it like in the texts from Jenny’s phone, “of”. This all showed the jury that in all likelihood Jenny did not write the text, and was a huge contribution to putting away Jenny’s murderer, David Hodgson, without a crime scene or body.

Despite this morbidity, forensic linguists don’t always solve murder cases. Ever heard of “fake news”? The rapid spread of disinformation in the digital era provides a new field of research. How can we tell whether information is credible or not? How do we know whether to trust a source? Again, language has the answer. This was Will Dance’s area of expertise. He told us how one man was creating false news articles about ‘Haribo’; he would wait for the stocks to drop, then delete the articles. He would then sell his stocks as the value of ‘Haribo’ went back up again. This type of stock market fraud could net someone over £100,000 a year! This is one of the most topical new fields in the twenty first century area of forensic linguistics, as social media makes it easier to post fake news and a sources supposed ‘credibility’ can be easily manipulated. Fake news has played a huge part in elections, and you could help stop it, trace its source, and provide evidence in court - if you study English Language.

Forensic Linguistics is clearly a very interesting and novel field, which is gaining more and more importance every day. We communicate all the time on social media: every word we send out instantly becomes permanent. If you want to learn more about forensic linguistics, “Word Crime” by John Olsson outlines many different cases. The TV show “Manhunt: Unabomber” also tells the story of the FBI catching a serial bomber simply by looking at his language and identifying his unique idiolect.

Tom Pallen