Forensic Linguistics

Solving crimes with linguistics sounds sort of crazy, doesn't it? But wait, that's what my alter-ego's first mystery revolves around! Tace Baker's Speaking of Murder came out from Barking Rain Press on September 18. It features a Quaker linguistics professor who...well, let's just quote her web site

"The murder of a talented student at a small New England college thrusts linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau into the search for the killer. Lauren is a determined Quaker with an ear for accents. Her investigation exposes small town intrigues, academic blackmail and a clandestine drug cartel that now has its sights set on her."

A New Yorker article from a couple of months ago called “Words on Trial” described the current state of forensic linguistics. I knew about the field from prior research, but it was cool to be reminded of how linguists can solve crimes by analyzing consistent patterns in text messages, voice mail message, or written notes.

For example, the article describes how Professor Robert Leonard matched certain elements in the emails of an accused murderer with the text scrawled on the wall at the murder scene. Things like using "U" for "you," which is commonly seen in text messages but not in emails, and misplaced apostrophes in words like "doesnt'" and "cant'." This case had no physical evidence, and the accused was condemned to three life terms in prison based on the forensic linguistic evidence.

The article gave me more than one idea for Book Three in Tace Baker's Speaking of Mystery series. In Speaking of Murder, Lauren Rousseau uses spoken accents, both domestic and foreign, to identify and eliminate suspects. But she's fully capable of doing text analysis or of determining, as Leonard did, that the suspect used contractions only in negative statement ("I can't") but not in positive ones ("I am"), evidence that resulted in conviction.

Author: Tace Baker

Have you read mysteries solved by a linguist or investigator with linguistic prowess? Or heard of crimes with language-related evidence?



Carola Dunn said…
Agatha Christie used linguistics as a clue in one of her stories. She has a French male criminal attempting to escape dressed as a woman, but he slips and uses the feminine form of a French adjective in referring to himself. Unfortunately, when I read it, I thought it was just another typo...
Kaye George said…
Great subject, Tace! This subject, presented as a formal science, is new to me. Love it! I almost became a linguist and am still interested in all things wordy.
Unknown said…
Sounds fascinating, Tace. So you've said something about books one and three in the series. What's book two?

Carole Shmurak
Edith Maxwell said…
Carola, how interesting. I'll have to look that up. I have a French man in Speaking of Murder and how he texts becomes a clue!
Edith Maxwell said…
Thanks, Kaye! I hope to make more of it in future books.
Edith Maxwell said…
Carole, Book Two is about 2/3 written and uncovers the secret of the death of my protagonist's father as she also solves a present-day crime. Not quite as much linguistics in that one - she's on summer break! Right now I'm too busy with my Local Foods Mystery series to finish it, unfortunately. That will happen when I can quit the day job in a year or two. ;^)
I think the whole subject is absolutely fascinating! So good to have you on my blog today.
Edith Maxwell said…
Thanks for having me, Marilyn!
Mitzi Morris said…
Dear Marilyn,

in 2012 I wrote my first mystery novel called "Poetic Justice" in which
a computer program is used to determine the author of several mysterious
books and manuscripts. (in 2012 I was unaware that Carolyn Heilbrun,
writing under the pseudonym Amanda Cross, also wrote a mystery called
"Poetic Justice" which has no forensic linguistics, but which does have
a first-hand, insiders view of the Columbia student riots of April 1968).

I'm a computational linguist by training, so this plot device came rather naturally.

and I guess forensic linguistics was very much in the air in 2012
or great minds think alike.

since you posted this, J.K.Rowling published under a psuedonym, and forensic
linguistics were part of the evidence used to uncover this, (although some
smelled a publicity stunt) - see article "How Computer Analysis Uncovered J. K. Rowling's Secret Novel" from the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery).


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