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The Usefulness Of Forensic Linguistics

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Is language a distinctive feature when it comes to constructing yourself? Language allows speakers not only to communicate with others, but also to express who they are, where they come from, and who they associated with. “Language functions as a cornerstone in the construction of our identity and in the relationships we build” (Littlejohn and Rao Mehta 1). The process by which people construct and project their proximity to ideals, concepts, people, places, and namely their culture, is done both consciously and unconsciously. Linguistics is concerned with the structure of language and the ways in which it functions in different settings. Although there are several fields in which linguistics can be applied, one of the most interesting area is the forensic context of law, that is, forensic linguistics. Increasingly in the courtroom, forensic linguists have been asked to weigh in on matters of “author identification”, not to determine the grammatical significance of certain words but to identify who said or wrote them. Sometimes the police have no clues to the identity of a criminal and, since most linguists approach the problem of questioned authorship from the theoretical position that every speaker has their own distinct and individual version of the language they speak, that is, their own idiolect, a linguist may be asked to identify any sociolinguistic features which could provide information about an offender. “…the field of Linguistics should be considered as important as any other legal fields. Language is essential to our social life. On every trial, the use of language is necessarily evoked” (Amadio). The aim of this paper is to describe how forensic linguistics can be as efficient and useful as physical sciences when it comes to helping investigators catch and prosecute offenders. Even though there are many reasons why forensic linguistics has equal importance to other sciences in solving crimes, in this paper we focus on the three most important reasons that helped investigators to apprehend a well-known domestic terrorist: word choice, word order, and spelling. In the normal transfer of information through language, we use language to send vital social messages about who we are, where we come from, and who we associate with. This research paper will focus on how an US criminal who conducted a bombing campaign that lasted 17 years in an attempt to foment a revolution against the industrial system was caught mainly due to linguistic evidence. A brief overview of the Unabomber case as well as of forensic linguistics will be offered in the first section of the paper, and then a paragraph will be devoted to each of the most important linguistics features used as evidence (word choice, word order, and spelling) in Theodore Kaczynski’s capture.

In the few last decades, the field of forensic linguistics has been growing significantly. There is even a professional organization (the International Association of Forensic Linguistics) where linguists work in fields related to the area of language and law. Some of the areas of expertise include voice identification, authorship attribution, trademark issues, disputed confessions, linguistic proficiency, dialectology, among others. In addition, programs of study in forensic linguistics are offered at many universities such as Cardiff University in the UK and Hofstra University in the US. The Art & Humanities Research Council wrote that “science is becoming increasingly important in relation to the law, and forensic linguistics is one area where research is leading to advances that are increasingly used to solve crimes” (qtd. in Ghasemi Ariani et al. 225).

One of the main aims of forensic linguistics is to provide a meticulous, precise and well-organized analysis of language. The results of such study can be used by several different professionals: the police can use them as evidence to decipher crimes more reliably or even to interview suspects and witnesses more efficiently; public defenders, judges, and members of the jury can use them to decide whether somebody is guilty or innocent more fairly. Besides, translators and interpreters can also use such analysis to express information with greater accuracy.

Although the term “forensic linguistics” was coined by linguistics professor Jan Svartvik in The Evans Statements: A Case For Forensic Linguistics, published in 1968, Roger Shuy is widely considered to be the pioneer of such field of study. Shuy is an American linguist known for his work in sociolinguistics and forensic linguistics.

One of the most well-known cases where linguistic experts worked along with the law enforcement was the Unabomber. The Unabomber is the nickname given to the domestic US terrorist Ted Kaczynski, who built untraceable bombs and delivered them to random targets (academics, business executives, and others) during 17 years. Kaczynski was a mathematics prodigy and a teacher at the University of California at Berkeley before he retired to a survivalist, anti-tech lifestyle in a cabin in the Montana woods. Kaczynski’s bombing campaign started in the late 70s and lasted until 1996 when he was finally caught. In 1979, an FBI task force was formed to investigate the “UNABOMB” case (named after the university and airline bombing targets). The task force made every possible forensic examination of the recovered bomb components and analyzed the lives of the victims minutely; however, the bomber left no forensic evidence since he built his bombs with materials available almost anywhere, and the victims, as officers later learned, were chosen arbitrarily from a library research. The big break came in 1995 when the Unabomber sent a 35,000-word manifesto called Industrial Society and its Future to several newspaper agencies demanding it be published. In the hopes that a reader could identify the author, a man name David Kaczynski found the manifesto disturbingly familiar: the word choices and philosophy resembled those of his brother’s letters, which he then gave to the FBI. Several linguists analyzed the essay, comparing the phrasing of the manifesto to that of the letters provided by David Kaczynski, and later, other documents found in Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin. “The identification of whether a given individual said or wrote something relies on analysis of their idiolect, or particular patterns of language use (vocabulary, collocations, pronunciation, spelling, grammar)” (Ghasemi Ariani et al. 223). Eventually, he was caught and put on trial in California. He was given a life sentence without parole, rather than the death sentence, in exchange for pleading guilty.

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Since in the UNABOMB case there was no physical evidence that could be used in order to identify the author of the bombing campaign, both investigators and linguists worked together to find linguistic similarities between the manifesto sent by the perpetrator and some other documents his alleged brother provided to the police. Besides the bomber’s philosophy that was also used as a clue to identify him, there were sociolinguistic features that provided information about the Unabomber, and they can be classified into 3: word choice, word order, and spelling.

Both the manifesto and the documents written by Theodore Kaczynski advocated for an ideology that opposed technology. In fact, Kaczynski argued that technology and the industrialized society destroy human freedom because it needs to regulate human behaviour closely in order to function. According to Kaczynski, “the Industrial Revolution has radically altered man’s environment and way of life, and it is only to be expected that as technology is increasingly applied to the human body and mind, man himself will be altered as radically as his environment and way of life have been” (20). Therefore, the main themes that were discussed in both the manifesto and the letters written by Kaczynski were: society and power, technology and freedom, and psychology.

Kaczynski and the Unabomber’s linguistic choices, more specifically word choices, could help the investigators of the case to “build the criminal linguistic profile” in an attempt to compare and match the authors. Every speaker has a large vocabulary system built up over the years and which is different from others’ vocabulary systems, not only in terms of terminology, but also in preferences for certain word combinations. Hoey wrote that “whereas in principle any speaker/writer can use any word at any time, speakers in fact tend to make typical and individuation co-selections of preferred words” (qtd. in Coulthard 1). This implies that it is possible to devise a method that conceive these choices as a signature and thus, to identify offenders on the basis of their linguistic features. For instance, the perpetrator’s age could be calculated through the use of some archaic terms that were no longer used in the English speaking community at the time of the bombing campaign: “broad, chick” and “negro”, for women and African-Americans respectively. In addition, both Kaczynski and the Unabomber showed a preference for several unusual words and expressions, such as “chimerical,” “anomic,” “coreligionist,” “anomie,” “middle-class vacuity,” and “cool-headed logicians.” (Luu)

Kaczynski could be identified as the Unabomber because of the word order of a widely known idiomatic expression. One particular sentence of the manifesto stood out because at first it appeared to be one of the few mistakes the Unabomber made: “As for the negative consequences eliminating industry society well, you can’t eat your cake and have it too” (Kaczynski 24). The word order choice of the expression “you can’t eat your cake and have it too” (24) was at first believed to be wrong (the idiomatic expression was believed to be: “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”). Besides, they found it odd that someone as intelligent as the Unabomber could make such an obvious error in a well-known phrase. Although eventually linguists found out that the Unabomber’s phrasing, based on fifteenth century Middle English, was actually correct and everyone else was using it the wrong way, the importance of the “mistake” of such phrase was that Kaczynski also use it in a letter he had sent to the editor of the Saturday Review. In it, Kaczynski stated that “We will be sacrificing some of the materialistic benefits of technology, but there you just aren’t any other way. We can’t eat our cake and have it too.”

Last but not least, another feature that help investigators link Kaczynski with the Unabomber was the spelling “mistakes” found in the manifesto. The FBI used a method for looking at misspellings in an attempt to compare and match up the authors of both the manifesto and other documents. For instance, both authors used “analyse” for “analyze,” “licence” for “license,” “wilfully” instead of “willfully,” “instalment” instead of “installment” (Luu). Some of these apparent misspellings would turn out not to be mistakes but British variants, archaic spellings that were no longer used in the United States. The fact that Kaczynski’s writing style contained British spellings led the investigators to discover that he was in fact using an outdated version of a style guide for the Chicago Tribune, indicating that he probably read that newspaper during that period of time. So they could estimate not only his age, but also where he probably grew up, that is, Chicago: the same city where Kaczynski was born.

The present research paper has offered a brief overview of the field of forensic linguistics and illustrated its application in authorship attribution in a particular FBI case, serving the law enforcement. Forensic linguistics comprises the study, analysis and measurement of language in the context of crime, judicial procedures or disputes in law. With the aid of forensic linguistics, the words criminals leave behind in their unsigned letters can be as distinctive as a signature or voice. Authorship attribution is the science of inferring characteristics of the author of a crime from the characteristics of documents produced by that author. Although this facilitated by measuring and analyzing a number of linguistic features, in this paper we focus on three linguistic characteristics that were crucial for identifying the Unabomber: word choice, word order, and spelling. The present paper has shown how forensic linguistics can be as efficient and useful as physical sciences when it comes to helping investigators and police officers catch and prosecute offenders. In the special case of the Unabomber, it was Kaczynski’s own words that led to his capture. Since the bombs were carefully made so as to leave no evidence that could be used to track the offender, the Unabomber could be identified as Theodore Kaczynski because of particular phrases such as “you can’t eat your cake and have it too”, spelling discrepancies such as “analyse” or “instalment”, and specific word choices such as “broad”, “negro”, “cool-headed logicians”, among others. Besides, it is also relevant to mention that the thematic content of the papers compared in the Unabomber case were the same: the dark side of the industrialized society and the evils of modern technology. It can be concluded that “the fact that linguists are participating on trials has an impact on the way the other disciplines perceive our discipline. On a trial, language analysis may be a factor that influences the judge’s decision” (Amadio).

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The Usefulness Of Forensic Linguistics. (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-usefulness-of-forensic-linguistics/
“The Usefulness Of Forensic Linguistics.” Edubirdie, 24 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-usefulness-of-forensic-linguistics/
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The Usefulness Of Forensic Linguistics [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 24 [cited 2022 Aug 12]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-usefulness-of-forensic-linguistics/
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