It’s time for another example of the different kinds of work that linguists can do. The background of this example involves the terrorist group known as the Islamic State and the murder of US journalist, James Foley, which unfortunately has shown to be the first in a string of violent beheadings. This post is about the role that a linguist is playing in helping to identify the IS representative in the video depicting the murder of Mr. Foley.
Dr. Claire Hardaker, a lecturer at Lancaster University (in the UK), was asked by British and US security services to use her linguistics training to try to help identify the masked man in the video based on his speech. She was also asked to analyze an email sent to Mr. Foley’s family. Her analysis suggests that the speaker is most likely a native speaker of British English, and from the south of England. Furthermore, that whoever wrote the email is also a native English speaker, due to their use of creative metaphors, dependent clauses, and proper use of the possessive form.
This type of analysis falls under the category of “Forensic Linguistics,” i.e. language and the law, and covers everything from analyzing written threats or ransom notes to incidences of possible trademark infringement.
Forensic linguistics is a fascinating field. I’ve always been drawn to criminal investigative work (it was my fervent wish to be an FBI agent for a long time), so when I saw that an entire course on this topic was being offered my first semester, I eagerly signed up. At some point during the first few weeks of class, we were told the following story to demonstrate the kind of work forensic linguists do:
Roger Shuy, a sociolinguist (and emeritus linguistics professor at Georgetown University) was asked to analyze a ransom note from a kidnapping. The note featured several misspellings and the phrase “Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip at corner 18th and Carlson.” Realizing that “devil strip” is an uncommon way to describe the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, Shuy referred to the Dictionary of American Regional English and discovered that that phrase’s use was limited to the area around Akron, Ohio. Shuy shared his findings with the police, who already had a suspect who hailed from that geographic region. When they confronted the suspect with Shuy’s analysis, the suspect confessed to the kidnapping.
A longer version of this story can be found here–Linguistic Profiling from “Do You Speak American.” I also encourage you to check out the website of Roger Shuy.
While this example is rather satisfying from a crime-solving point of view, I want to point out that when you’re dealing with language it’s rarely that straightforward. With this type of forensic linguistic work it’s very difficult to provide definitive answers regarding things like threat assessment or authorship.
But due to their unique perspective and training, linguists can help law enforcement officials, judges, attorneys, and juries better understand evidence or arguments, such as the likelihood that two similar trademarks will be confused by consumers or the reliability of ear-witness accounts (like an eye-witness, except ear-witnesses have heard rather than seen something of possible interest).
If you’d like to learn more about forensic linguistics, I encourage you to check out some of the links above. And if you’re still curious, leave a comment below—I’m happy to answer questions, give more examples, or offer suggested reading!