Friday, July 20, 2012

Forensic Linguistics - What?

I picked up my New Yorker magazine this week and browsed the table of contents. Whoa! An article from the "Department of Linguistics" titled "Words on Trial." Really? (Note: you might have to be a subscriber to read the whole article.)

How cool is that? Solving crimes with linguistics. But wait, that's what my alter-ego's first mystery revolves around! Tace Baker's Speaking of Murder will be out from Barking Rain Press on September 18. It features a Quaker linguistics professor who...well, let's just quote her web site

"The murder of a talented student at a small New England college thrusts linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau into the search for the killer. Lauren is a determined Quaker with an ear for accents. Her investigation exposes small town intrigues, academic blackmail and a clandestine drug cartel that now has its sights set on her."

So I drilled deeper into the article. I knew this from prior research, but it was cool to be reminded of how linguists can solve crimes by analyzing consistent patterns in text messages, voice mail message, or written notes. 

For example, Professor Robert Leonard matched certain elements in the emails of an accused murderer with the text scrawled on the wall at the murder scene. Things like using "U" for "you," which is commonly seen in text messages but not in emails, and misplaced apostrophes in words like "doesnt'" and "cant'." (Oh, be still for a moment, you Pet Peevers, you...) This case had no physical evidence, and the accused was condemned to three life terms in prison based on the forensic linguistic evidence.

I encourage you to read the entire well-researched and well-written article. It's given me more than one idea for Book Three in Tace Baker's Speaking of Mystery series. In Speaking of Murder, Lauren Rousseau uses spoken accents, both domestic and foreign, to identify and eliminate suspects. But she's fully capable of doing text analysis or of determining, as Leonard did, that the suspect used contractions only in negative statement ("I can't") but not in positive ones ("I am"), evidence that resulted in conviction. 

Have you read mysteries solved by a linguist or investigator with linguistic prowess? Or heard of crimes with language-related evidence?


  1. I read that article, too! Wasn't it super? I've read lots of mystery stories that hinged on language. I read one where someone was almost convicted by the dying words of the victim, but the detective realized the vic had an accent and was saying something else. Agatha Christie's Miss Marple sometimes solved crimes by knowing what somebody meant by a domestic expression the cosmopolitan coppers didn't recognize.

    I'm looking forward to the new books! :)

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes