Ever heard of the phrase forensic linguistics? As a consumer of entertainment media, you’ve been exposed to the overarching concept. If you’re obsessed with mystery television shows or movies or fascinated by the process of gathering and analyzing evidence, you know what goes on in forensic work. Forensic linguistics is the application of these same principles to language-based evidence. Learn more by reading Forensic Linguistics: 101.
In many ways, a forensic linguist is like a language detective. Take the controversy surrounding Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. Some claim he was murdered and cite the note as evidence. The Cobain story is just one of five examples of forensic linguistics’ impact on popular culture:
1. J.K. Rowling outed for The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013)
April 4, 2013 a book titled The Cuckoo’s Calling hit stores in England. In the murder mystery, Cormoran Strike teams with up with a woman named Robin to solve the death of Lula Landry while submerging themselves into the world of fame, fashion, and supermodels.
So where does forensic linguistics come into play? No, not in the book itself but within the mystery of who the author claimed to be, Robert Galbraith. Google that name and today you will see a familiar face on your screen. J.K. Rowling. We know her for The Harry Potter series but she was the real author behind The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Many authors write under a pseudonym identity for reasons like exploring a new genre, switching publishing companies, or failed previous works. Rowling’s choice to publish the novel under Robert Galbraith was meant to be secret but was soon revealed by forensic linguist Patrick Juola. Juola used computer software to analyze and compare this novel to Rowling’s previous work, studying word length among other textual clues. He explained authors using a pseudonym will change “sesquipedalian lexical items” (a.k.a. long words) but disregard prepositions and articles. Rowling eventually claimed the work as her own.
2. Solved TV series (2008-2010)
Solved is based on real cases. As with all cases, investigators approach the investigation by analyzing all evidence and interviews, including the language involved.
In this particular case, investigators analyze the letters R-O-C written in blood on the wall near the victim’s body. In most cases, forensic linguists are not hired but the investigation team acts as forensic linguist.
3. Zodiac the film (2007)
Based on a true story, this film tells the story of San Francisco, California in the late 60’s and 70’s and the fear surrounding the notorious Zodiac Killer who had yet to be caught. Two investigators and two reporters become obsessed with finding the killer’s true identity, ultimately letting the case consume their lives.
Actual investigators utilized forensic linguistic skills to analyze the Zodiac killer’s letters throughout the case, which is shown in the film. In addition, director David Fincher hired well-known forensic linguist from California State University at Fresno, Gerald McMenamin, to analyze letters left behind by the Zodiac Killer and compare them to letters prime by prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. McMenamin looked at sentence structure, specifically syllables and morphemes. His conclusion was the Zodiac’s and Allen’s writings were very similar, leading him to believe Allen did write the Zodiac letters.
4. Forensic Files TV series (1996-2011)
Based on true incidents, the Forensic Files series show how the various types of forensic investigation can help to solve cases. In many episodes, evidence is studied using a forensic linguistic analysis approach.
This episode features Dr. Robert Leonard, leading forensic linguist at Hofstra University and former member of the rock ‘n roll band Sha Na Na, who compares the stalker’s letter to the letter turned into police confessing the murder. The case’s evidence along with Leonard’s analysis pointed police right to the killer.
Kurt Cobain, the former lead singer of Nirvana, was found in his home on April 8, 1994 with a head wound, a shotgun laid atop his body, and a suicide note nearby. Forensic analysts soon declared that he had been dead for three days prior to the discovery of his body. It was easy for some to believe his death was caused by suicide, as he had been clinically depressed and addicted to drugs. Others found the evidence didn’t add up and were convinced Cobain was murdered.
The film Soaked in Bleach (2015), directed by Benjamin Statler, recreates Cobain’s death and the investigation that followed. Throughout the film, the death is examined through the murder theory espoused by Tom Grant and other experts. A private investigator previously hired by Courtney Love, Cobain’s wife from 1992-1994, Grant believes Love may have murdered her husband and has come to this conclusion through a forensic linguistics analysis of Cobain’s suicide note, physical evidence, and personal information about Cobain and Love.