This is what “forensic linguistics” mean in popular parlance. The comparison of texts and the interpretation of their differences/similarities began with the question of Biblical authorship, was used in legal cases in the 18th century, and is now used to identify the authors of ransom notes, manifestos, and abusive or libelous emails or other electronic communications. Also called “stylometrics.”
“…style is intrinsic and private, like…voice or gesture, partly a matter of inheritance, partly of cultivation. It is more than a pattern of expression. It is the pattern of the soul.”
Think of language as haberdashery: you have a closet full of clothes for every occasion. Your clothing choice expresses yourself in a particular context, for a particular audience. In the same way, barely aware of it (or not aware at all), you change your speech to what you think (though there are no conscious thinking processes) will be effective for a particular situation and audience.
Forensic linguistics – what’s that?
Is a contract provision binding if its meaning is indeterminate or ambiguous?
At various places on this site, you’ll find somewhat abstract descriptions of the services I offer. But what kinds of cases do I actually get involved in? Examples follow (current cases excluded).
In three of my specialties, I’m about equally divided between Plaintiff and Defendant. In cases of alleged academic plagiarism, I represent the Defendant, who typically has not committed plagiarism, even by the university’s own rules. In cases of literary plagiarism, I represent Plaintiffs who believe that their work has been copied.
Can people disguise the way they write?
Can people deliberately fake their writing style?
By way of background…
Perhaps 25% of the cases I handle involve the authorship of anonymous, disputed, or forged documents. The client wants to know who’s writing those nasty, threatening emails or letters. I typically ask the client for writing samples from the suspected author. Sometimes there’s more than one suspect, and I have to decide which of them may be the author of the anonymous document(s).
Each writer has a distinctive pattern of linguistic features.
The following description is taken from an affidavit by Gerald R. McMenamin, one of the leading scholars in the field; the affidavit – from Case 1:10-cv-00569-RJA -LGF Document 50 Filed 06/02/11.
As part of his expert witness statement, McMenamin describes the theoretical and practical foundation of the method by which he examined documents and determined that they were not written by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman. See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24gray.html .
These are the principles I apply to my authorship analyses.
Principles of stylistic analysis
What is forensic stylistics? full post
(342 words, 1 image, estimated 1:22 mins reading time)
A forensic linguist who practices stylistic analysis must be exquisitely sensitive to nuances of text. Where a synonym exists, the very choice of each word represents a decision on the part of the author. Superimposed upon that is the way the word is spelled, abbreviated or capitalized. Truly, a text is a tangle of choices.
The following are intended to test your potential as a forensic linguist. There are two exercises from Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language, Crime and the Law, by John Olsson (New York: Continuum, 2004).
(1) From page 193:
Charles Dickens is famous for giving his characters whimsical names that often reflect their personalities. “Scrooge” is probably the best-known, unmistakably conveying a grasping miserliness in almost tangible terms.
If Dickens had written about a vulgar, aggressive billionaire intent on seeking power, crushing his enemies, and emblazoning his name around the world, he could hardly have chosen a better name than “Trump.”
But we’re not talking about a literary character. Trump is a real person who makes sure his name is repeated 24/7 in every possible mass-media outlet.
(from Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics, by Gerald R. McMenamin, CRC Press, 2002).
Q: What is the role of the analyst’s intuition?
A: Intuition is the analyst’s use of his or her own judgment to discover linguistic variation and suggest initial hypotheses to investigate. As a speaker or writer of the language and as a linguist, the analyst uses introspection to start the process of analysis. Lakoff comments, on the use of introspection and informal observation that, “… any procedure is at some point introspective…” (Lakoff, 19705:5). A good discussion of the methodological role of intuition in linguistic research can be found in B. Johnstone, Qualitative Methods in Sociolinguistics, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.
FAQ’s about forensic linguistics full post
(405 words, estimated 1:37 mins reading time)
Although it employs the methods and concepts of modern linguistics (and sometimes makes use of statistical analysis and computer databases), forensic linguistics is at least 200 years old.
According to Gerald R. McMenamin (Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics), “hundreds of studies — in the form of journal articles and books — have been done on style, stylistics, and questioned authorship. German studies of Old Testament authorship date back at least to the middle of the 19th century. In addition, evidence has been presented in multiple court cases, and numerous judicial opinions have been documented based on evidence of forensic stylistics.
“Epithets, like pepper / Give zest to what you write; / And if you strew them sparely, / They whet the appetite: / But if you lay them on too thick, / You spoil the matter quite!”
Lewis Carroll, “Poeta fit, non Nascitur,” 1869
“A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.”
W. Somerset Maugham, “The Summing Up,” 1938
Leave it to a linguist to obsess over the use of a single word…but, well, that’s what we do. I could write an entire article on the appearance and evolution of interjections like Duh! and meh, or new conversation-stoppers like what-ever (pronounced with falling intonation).