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Forensic Linguistics - What is it?

Words are signs.

“The printed or spoken word “gun” is not the actual gun itself, but rather a

sign that represents the gun.  Likewise, the name “Dave” is not actually

the person, but rather a sign that represents the individual who is called

Dave.”    P. 16  Investigative Discourse Analysis  1994 by Don Rabon


Forensic linguistics focuses on using communication as evidence. In short, it allows us to unlock the secrets of communication. The word communication includes all elements: words, body language, body movements, voice, inflections, lip shapes, blinking rates, .. ad infinitum.

The beauty of forensic linguistics hits you when you find the rhythm and patterns of communication. It’s like enjoying a symphony. You need to experience it.


 Forensic Linguistics


Forensic Linguists look for communication patterns. A communication pattern could be the rhythm and pace of talking; how the person uses his/her hands when talking; eye movements; blinking rates; tone, intensity - in short, anything. The forensic linguist calibrates to the individual, identifying his or her unique communication patterns. When those patterns change, the linguist has to determine why or what caused that change. The change could be the result of many variables, such as noise, distraction, deception, and so on. Only the linguist's skill and experience will determine the cause.

Like water seeking its own level, the body relieves itself of stress, seeking calmness. The greatest stress reliever known to man is truth-telling. It’s a relief valve, a bloodletting, a purging. Nature demands it in order to begin the rebuilding process. Forensic linguists, interrogators, and investigators use that force to their advantage. We know the default is peace, calm, least-stress. That state is reached through truth-telling.


Think of our communication process as a huge parking lot, with a huge number of cars/vehicles - each representing our unjique vocabulary, words, body language, habits - everything to do with how we communicate our throughts to others. As we communicate, our “attendant” (mind) examines each vehicle to compose the thought we wish to communicate. Retrieving the vehicle is very fast - a millisecond. That, however, represents a decision our mind makes to select the vehicle at that time. Sometimes when that vehicle suddenly appears in our communication, we want it to disappear—but it’s too late, it has already appeared. We try to send it back into the parking lot, even though it was already detected, seen, and heard and has left tracks (evidence) the Forensic Linguist detects. These are Freudian slips, parapraxes, “slips of the tongue” - nothing is a "slip of the tongue."


 Everything matters in communication. Everything is the result of a decision. The “slip of the tongue” gives us a window into the thought process of the communicator. The intended or unintended thought(s) that caused that “slip,” illuminating that vehicle, is there for us to evaluate, to interpret.

In short, forensic linguistics requires the methodical study of each and every word, each and every communication mechanism, communication element. We seek to identify communication patterns and changes in those patterns. For example, take a look at the following statement:


“I saw him come up from the basement with a gun. He went outside and shot the gun in the air.”


That sentence makes sense and has truthful traits—the change from the article “a” in “a gun” to article “the” in “the gun” is expected. Logically, it appears as if the speaker is referring to the same gun and the same shooter. The speaker uses the active voice (I saw; He went), and the past tense (saw, went, shot). We probably know what happened. The “active voice” tells you who did what: “I threw the ball.” You have no doubt who threw the ball. In contrast, we often see, “The ball was thrown,” which is the “passive voice.” The passive voice doesn’t tell you who the actor was. Truthful people want you to know the truth. Untruthful people want you to think you are being told the truth. So, we often see deceptive people use the “passive voice.”


“I saw him come up from the basement with a gun. He went outside, and a gun was shot in the air.”


This is different. Now we don’t know which gun was shot  or, for that matter, who shot the gun. In the first example, we assume (assumptions are never safe) the guy who went from the basement to the outside is the one who shot the gun. In the second example, we’re left wondering who shot the gun or what gun because the speaker changed the communication pattern. Something happened to cause the change. We know the speaker can use the active voice, as shown in the first 1.5 sentences, but he or she chooses to change to the passive voice (“. . . and a gun was shot in the air”), effectively concealing the gun used and the person who shot the gun. Something caused that change. Notice that the use of passive language forces sentences to be longer, wordier, cloudier. The active voice, conversely, provides clarity and precision. The passive voice is imprecise and causes confusion, often intentionally. Deceptive people often use the passive voice to subtly conceal knowledge, the identity of the actor, or their intent. Applying forensic  linguistics  will  allow us to better understand what really happened. It enables us to identify changes in communication patterns and help determine why those changes occurred, ultimately leading us to understand what really happened.



What Can the Forensic Linguist Do For You?


Please keep in mind Forensic Linguistic Analysis results will be very beneficial when developing case strategies.


Ransom Note Analysis: The Forensic Linguist (FL) can analyze ransom notes by examining the linguistic features, such as syntax, vocabulary choice, and writing style, to identify unique characteristics that may reveal a specific geographic region and the perpetrator's educational background. There are cases where the FL identified the suspect's knowledge of a particular city, helping investigators zero in on the suspect's residential history.


Authorship Attribution: Forensic Linguists (FL) can conduct authorship attribution analysis by comparing the linguistic features of the letter to known samples of the suspect's writing and discovering significant similarities in writing style, vocabulary, and punctuation. The Unabomber Case is such a case where the FBI FL work allowed the FBI to obtain a Search Warrant for Ted Kaczynski's cabin in Montana and break the case.


Text Message Analysis: Forensic Linguists (FL) can analyze the language used in cyberbullying cases to identify specific commonalities, patterns, and help determine if threats are genuine. By examining factors such as slang usage, spelling variations, and emoticon usage, the FL will help determine strategies to react to threatening messages.


Voice Analysis: Forensic Linguists (FL) conduct voice analysis along with transcripts of the message to determine the caller's demographic characteristics, such as age, gender, and regional accent. By comparing the acoustic features of the voice in the voicemail to known speech samples, the FL can narrow down the suspect pool and provide valuable information to investigators.


Social Media Analysis: Forensic Linguists (FL) can analyze the language used in social media posts, emails, and chat messages, although the brevity may limit this analysis. By examining linguistic patterns, communication styles, and content themes, the FL can trace the digital footprint of the perpetrator.


".. unlocking the secrets of communication." - buy Mr. Koenig's autographed books at BOOKSTORE.

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