Saturday, 13 September 2008

Using Linguistics in Crime

You have just walked into an electronics store in Britain and stolen a video iPod. Dressed in the garb of your annoying roommate, you are assured that not even the CCTV cameras will be able to expose your true identity. Coolly, you text your partner in crime from an anonymous pay-as-you-go cell phone as you put more and more distance between you and the scene of the crime – you know, just to throw the police off the scent:

“hey man, I got it. pretty easy eh.”

A month later, you and your friend are in court and convicted of petty theft. But how was the crime tracked to you?

Say hello to a relatively new type of forensics called linguistic forensics. Even without physical evidence from the scene of the crime, such as camera footage, fingerprints, or DNA samples, forensic scientists are now able to use language to convict criminals. So, how is this done?

A news item posted on the BBC news website (Sept. 8th 2008) describes it best. In a recent incident, a man named David Hodgson was convicted for the murder of 20 year old Jenny Nicholls. Though her body was never recovered, police were able to convict him after forensic linguists found a number of texts on Jenny’s cell phone written in his native Yorkshire, England dialect – a dialect which Jenny never used in her texts. For instance, Jenny would always write ‘myself’ as ‘myself,’ whereas David preferred the more colloquial ‘meself.’ In short, it proved that a Yorkshire man had had possession of her phone after her disappearance. And who says that linguistics has no place in the real world!

Perhaps if the petty thief in our example had remembered to hide his Canadian nationality (‘eh’) and his probable identity as a young man (‘hey man’), he may have been more successful. Luckily for the general public, he and other more serious offenders like David Hodgson forgot what a serious contender linguistics can be in choosing whether your bedfellow that night will be your loving spouse, or your friendly local cell rat.

To find out more about the exciting world that is forensic linguistics, check out this site!


Barry said...

Interesting, I never thought of that type of evidense playing a major role before. I wonder if it will ever get to the point where even background checks will cover your linguistics.

heather-in-italia said...

Perhaps...the potential of linguistics in the real world is endless!

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