“Wasn’t me, I swear on me mum!” – How to spot the bad guy with the help of forensic linguistics

Think of your favourite crime series on TV. Almost always there’s the sharp-witted introvert guy with curly hair who seemingly draws the clues from out of nowhere.

Will Graham in Hannibal. Sherlock in – well – Sherlock. The guy that girls secretly like best. What if I told you that you can be that guy?

Here’s what you should study: Forensic linguistics. It is a special subfield within linguistics and a rather exciting one as you will see in this post! The word ‘forensic’ is derived from Latin and translates to something like “in open court or public”. Considering that this is probably the first time you have ever heard of the profession, we can deduce that forensic linguists actually don’t appear in public that much.

What exactly does a forensic linguist do?

One job of a forensic linguist is to use his/her knowledge about language to help the police solve crimes. Different people use language quite differently, and it may not always be evident to non-professionals what language nuances can be significant for a case. Examples of such language details may be regional dialects (especially in spoken and informal settings, see “I swear on me mum” in the title) as well as idiomatic expressions (such as “cheap as chips”) that may also tell you about the speaker’s background and preferred style of language use.

The linguist can help the police or other legal institutions directly, for example by analysing written texts. Investigating the linguistic features in a threatening letter or in a suicide note may help to find the real author. When spoken language is involved, a so-called forensic phonetician can help by identifying specific speakers on the basis of their voices.

A forensic linguist can also appear in court as an expert witness to provide their expertise in relevant cases. In a more university-like setting, forensic linguists sometimes analyse longer texts to detect plagiarism or translate legal documents.

Actually, there are even more fields that such linguists work in. So you see, this job is quite extensive and if the media praise the police for solving a crime or for capturing a terrorist or criminal, it may have been the work of a forensic linguist.

So far so good. But what does a concrete case look like? Nothing more helpful than looking at a real example.

The case of Jenny Nicholls

In 2005, Jenny Nicholls disappeared from the Richmond area in New Yorkshire, England. There was no body. There wasn’t even a crime scene. But three years later, a man named David Hodgson was convicted of her murder. How did he get caught?

With the help of forensic linguistics, of course! The murderer had been sending text messages from Jenny’s phone after her disappearance to make it seem like she was still alive. Pretty clever, huh? Forensic linguists then analysed these texts and figured out that the style they were written in didn’t match Jenny’s. For example, Jenny’s actual messages showed that she tended to use “my” and “myself”, but in the messages sent after her disappearance, i.e. the ones written by the murderer, these pronouns suddenly changed to “me” and “meself”, as is common in Yorkshire dialect. Not so clever anymore, right?

This is just one of many aspects that together make up a person’s individual texting style, which they typically stick to in all their messages. Anyway, these newer texts were then found to match those of David Hodgson, who was previously having an affair with Jenny. And so, with a little help from DNA evidence that was also linked to Hodgson, he was convicted of Jenny’s murder and jailed for life, even though her body was never found.

Why language matters

To those of you who think that linguistic evidence alone is a slim basis for a conviction, rest assured that you won’t be jailed just because your writing is similar to that of some criminal. However, the example above shows how linguistic knowledge and analysis can help to solve crimes, and in this case even a murder! And it is a reminder that language ALWAYS matters. Even more so in seemingly unsolvable crime cases. Inspired by this article, you may even be the hero to solve them one day!


Picture credits

Featured image: https://pixabay.com/de/fragezeichen-hacker-angriff-maske-2883630/ by geralt (Pixabay CC0).

Additional image: https://pixabay.com/de/tatort-band-szene-kriminalit%C3%A4t-999123/ by KERBSTONE (Pixabay CC0).

Alina, Thorsten, and Fabio

Thorsten Tepper and Fabio Seiler are master's students of Applied Linguistics at the University of Bonn. Alina Podolski is a former student in the same programme.

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1 Response

  1. Dino Hongo says:

    With thanks! Valuable information!

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