Forensic Linguistics: 101

If you have ever heard a song for the first time and recognized the artist because of his/her voice, then you have employed the techniques of linguistics. Or maybe you’ve left a note for your mother on the kitchen counter asking her to buy Doritos and though you didn’t sign it, she knew your handwriting.

In a basic sense, this is linguistics at work. Linguistics is the study of language using scientific methods. We use linguistics every single day to solve problems, and because it’s almost second nature to us, we don’t realize it’s an analytical process. When you add the word forensic to linguistic, it describes the science used to solve criminal cases, from contract violations to murder.

So what is forensic linguistics?


The first step to understanding forensic linguistics is to understand how linguistics permeates our lives. For instance, the way we pronounce particular words and the meanings we associate with such words are examples of linguistics.

Forensic linguistics is just one branch out of many applied linguistics. A forensic linguist aids criminal justice workers to solve criminal cases. A linguist must be able to draw conclusions and make judgments based on word choice, vocabulary, fluency, sentence structure and the grouping of sounds.  First, evidence is given to the linguist and they then analyze it through several different methods. Such methods include but are not limited to,

  • identifying voices from tape recordingslaun
  • uncovering the identity of an anonymous author by examining a document
  • analyzing the structure of the spoken word
  • gauging linguistic proficiency
  • deciding what dialect a person speaks
  • determining a person’s mother tongue
  • attempting to determine whether a speaker is lying

The linguist then testifies on trial to show what they have found to the jury. A forensic linguist may also be called upon to analyze ransom notes, threats, suicide notes, and terror campaigns. It is important to note that a forensic linguist does not solve crimes, rather they analyze the evidence that is given to them so that the jury can come to a conclusion.

One of the most widely known cases that forensic linguistic analyses played a large role in was that of the Unabomber. The Unabomber was someone who sent bomb threats to professors repeatedly beginning in 1978 until his arrest in 1996. A retired F.B.I. forensic linguist, James Fitzgerald, advised the F.B.I. to publish the Unabomber’s manifesto readers could come forward if they recognized anything from it. Many readers provided comparison pieces but one in particular stood out to Fitzgerald. The suspect was Ted Kaczynski. The manifesto and letters Kaczynski had written to his family previously showed similar unusual word choices and grammatical styles. With the help of Kaczynski’s brother David, Kaczynski was arrested and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Although the field of forensic linguistics is growing for obvious need-based reasons, it really has not become a popular career yet, hence as to why there is only one university offering the required degree (Hofstra University). The phrase forensic linguistics was coined in 1968 by Jan Svartvik in his piece, “The Evans Statements: A Case for Forensic Linguistics.” Within the past 20 years or so, professionals in the criminal justice field have slowly realized the need for forensic linguistics. Rather than getting their own degree in forensic linguistics to decipher messages or acting like they can without an education, lawyers and other professionals have sought out forensic linguists to examine evidence.

So by now you either think forensic linguistics sounds fascinating (like me!) or you are hesitant to trust a language analysis as evidence. Well that is why it is important to remember that cases are rarely ever solved on linguistics alone. Almost always there is another piece of evidence that goes hand-in-hand with the forensic linguist’s findings, like testimonies or photos.

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