5 Times Forensic Linguistics Was Used in the Entertainment Industry

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)

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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.

 

5. Kurt Cobain’s suicide note (1994)giphy (25).gif

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.

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?

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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.

Continue reading “Forensic Linguistics: 101”