Linguistics, Forensic Stylistics

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Linguistics, Forensic Stylistics

Forensic linguistics, or forensic stylistics as it is sometimes called, applies linguistic techniques to legal and criminal issues. This discipline subjects written or spoken materials (or both), to scientific analysis for determination and measurement of content, meaning, speaker identification , or determination of authorship.

In the analysis of a crime, it is important to study the written or spoken language of the perpetrator, as it can offer insight into the offender's age, race, gender, level of education, religious or spiritual beliefs, geographic and socioeconomic background, culture, and ethnicity.

Most adults' speech patterns retain vestiges of the geographic region, and sometimes of the local dialect, from the area in which they spent their childhood. Written communications provide fewer clues, although vocabulary and the use of colloquialisms (such as the variability in usage of "you" and "you all"; "pop," "soda," and "soda pop"; or "hot dog," "frank," and "wiener") may suggest geographic region. Written language stylistics generally reveals language of origin; the ordering of verbs, nouns and subject words in sentence structure is typically dictated by native spoken/written language. English speakers write in subject-verb-object order, non-English speakers more often write in subject-object-verb order ("You had better grasp the seriousness of my threat" versus "The seriousness of my threat you will be grasping").

Spoken and written nuances, grammar usage, generational characteristics, references to specific television shows, commercials, movies, music genre, or performers can all suggest general age. Although perpetrators sometimes attempt to disguise their gender, longer communications typically allow the individual to let down his/her guard sufficiently so as to reveal gender nuances. Females typically use more self-deprecating, more emotional, more polite, and less self-confident language than males. Females are more likely than males to overtly apologize for their actions, to utilize emotional words, and to use intensifiers.

Vocabulary, sentence complexity, abstract logic, and sophisticated word usage are likely to indicate higher levels of education. Use of technical or specific language can suggest occupation; biblical references may relate to religious or philosophical persuasion.

Forensic stylistics extends the principles of psycholinguistics to criminal, civil, law enforcement, or other legal venues. The field of psycholinguistics is concerned with the relationship between linguistics and the psychological processes underlying them. During the last third of the twentieth century, psychologists (in concert with other behavioral health professionals) studied and attempted to quantify linguistic features associated with character styles and personality traits, such as impulsivity, rage, anxiety, mania, depression, paranoia, sadism, narcissism, and the need to exert power and control over others, with the goal of utilizing this knowledge to understand or to predict criminal behavior.

Forensic linguistic analysis is utilized in cases involving assessment of threat, adjudication of authorship (submission of issues to a third party who has the power to deliver a binding decision), workplace and school violence, statement and confession analysis, and false allegations.

Specific word usage in spoken or written threats can give investigators a great deal of information concerning likelihood of action, suspect's motivation, personality characteristics, demographics, and degree of psychological stability (relates to the likelihood of impulsive action and the ability to safely manage stressful situations). The Behavioral Science Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is engaged in a longitudinal research project concerning the relationship between language use in threatening communications and the likelihood that the author/speaker will act on the threats made.

In adjudication of authorship, forensic linguists compare specific characteristics of current communications (tone, sentence structure, idiomatic usage [unique to a particular style], vocabulary, punctuation, spelling, and grammar) with a known corpus (body or group) of writings from the suspect, to match for authorship.

There has been significant media coverage of workplace and school violence in recent years. Terminated or disgruntled employees have killed supervisors and coworkers, estranged spouses have taken mass revenge at job sites, and angry, depressed, or marginalized students have opened fire on classmates. Although these attacks are often characterized as "coming out of the blue," analysis by experts in forensic stylistics generally reveal that the perpetrators planned their actions, or at least contemplated them, far in advance of their occurrence. Disgruntled employees and chronically distressed students often express their discontent in the presence of others, and their vocalizations tend to escalate in intensity and specificity over time. It is not uncommon for them to talk about weapons they have, or plan to acquire, before the violent event occurs. These verbal threats are often minimized or ignored until the act occurs.

Confession and statement analysis are used to determine the truthfulness of the speaker's words, the information communicated via word choices, and references to the information omitted. Forensic linguists can study these patterns to determine the best method of approach with individual suspects.

The study of false allegations is particularly interesting; this is the situation in which an alleged victim may be found either to be misrepresenting the facts or to be causing the circumstances in question. Specifically, a victim may intentionally accuse an innocent party in an effort to protect the true offender (or for myriad other reasons) or to punish the accused; an alleged victim may fabricate the reported event entirely (report being threatened when s/he is the actual author of the communications; or report the occurrence of a crime when none has occurred, etc.).

Forensic linguists also study the contents of suicide notes, to determine whether they were, in fact, authored by the deceased, or whether they might have been fabricated as a means of disguising a homicide.

The analysis of cybercrime is an emerging field of expertise for forensic stylists. Hackers use written code to break into, or to sabotage, programs and computer systems; sometimes the code can be linked to a particular individual, through the use of stylistics.

A key role in criminal investigations is played by forensic linguistics/stylistics. Analysis of the spoken or written words of the offender can greatly assist forensic scientists in identifying a perpetrator, in linking seemingly unrelated crimes, in determining authorship of disputed documents, in assessing the veracity (truthfulness) of statements and confessions, in preventing or understanding school or workplace violence, in uncovering false allegations, and in assessing the danger level, and potential for violence, in threatening communications.

see also Computer virus; Criminal profiling; Document forgery; Geographic profiling; Identity theft; Lindbergh kidnapping and murder; Psychological profile; Psychopathic personality.