A while back I got the following email, signed by a friend (let’s call him Gary):
Hope you get this on time,sorry I didn’t inform you about my trip in Spain for a program, I’m presently in Madrid-Spain and am having some difficulties here because i misplaced my wallet on my way to the hotel where my money and other valuable things were kept. presently i have limited access to internet,I will like you to assist me with a loan of 1,500 Pounds to sort-out my hotel bills and to get myself back home.
I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return,let me know if you can be of any help.I don’t have a phone where i can be reached.
Please let me know immediately.
My initial reaction (“Wow, poor Gary!”) was quickly replaced by the suspicion that – despite having been signed by Gary and sent from his email address – this wasn’t Gary’s ‘voice’. Although there were a number of expressions (such as ‘I don’t have a phone where I can be reached’) that, on an initial reading at least, lent a certain crediblity to the email, a closer analysis suggested that it may have been written by a non-native speaker: wordings such as ‘I will like you to assist me’ lack both idiomaticity and the appropriate degree of informality, while some collocations are just plain wrong (‘I hope you get this on time’; ‘my trip in Spain…’). Moreover, there are a number of orthographical features that are not typical of an educated native speaker (‘1,500 Pounds’, ‘sort-out’). All in all, I smelt a rat.
What I was doing was a form of ‘forensic linguistics’, i.e. using linguistic evidence in the identification (if not the solution) of a crime. To solve the crime using the methods of forensic linguistics, I would have needed to match ‘Gary’s email’ against a sample of texts written by likely suspects, looking for shared features of phrasing, word choice, and spelling. In an excellent introduction to forensic linguistics, Olsson (2004, p. 116) notes that
“The aim would be to establish a norm of lexical similarity or identity between each text in each pair of texts: what percentage of words do the two excerpts have in common? Previous experience suggests that two texts of approximately 250 words in length with 30 percent (or more) of lexical words identical to each other are unlikely to have been produced independently of each other”.
As it happens, a Google search for just one sentence from this fake email (“I will appreciate whatever you can afford”) produced around 33 million results. It seems that this email – with local adaptations – has been doing the rounds for a few years now, and a surprising number of people have been fooled by it – see, for example, this site.
(It’s odd that no one has seen fit to tidy up the grammar and phraseology along the way).
My interest in forensic linguistics was first piqued by a paper by Malcolm Coulthard (1992) in which he recounted his role as an expert witness in the trial of the ‘Birmingham Six’. Coulthard was able to use linguistic arguments to show that a statement allegedly made to the police by one of the accused was in fact a fabrication: the police had simply cut-and-pasted chunks of a previous interview into a statement format. Coulthard was subsequently to use the techniques of forensic linguistics to earn a posthumous pardon for Derek Bentley, wrongfully hanged for murder in the 1950s¹.
Since then forensic linguistics has matured into a discipline in its own right (you can now do an MSc in it) and it is regularly enlisted in cases of doubtful or disputed authorship such as wills, confessions, emergency calls, hate mail, suicide notes, blackmail demands, and literary plagiarism.
Given the public fascination both for crime and for language, it surprised me, at the time, that crime fiction seemed not to have produced a single detective whose specialism was forensic linguistics – a kind of Hercule Poirot of textual alteration. Accordingly, I set about trying to redress this lack, and drafted a few chapters of a novel whose protagonist was a laddish academic specialising in pragmatics at an unnamed London university who is recruited to solve a case of kidnap and extortion at a large private language school in Covent Garden. I duly sent it off to a number of publishers, adding an explanation as to the nature and importance of forensic linguistics. Result: I accumulated so many rejection slips that I seriously considered writing up a paper on their generic features. And still, ten years on, crime fiction cannot lay claim to a single forensic linguist – as far as I know.
If I am wrong, please let me know immediately. (But I don’t have a phone where i can be reached).
¹”Linguist Malcolm Coulthard showed that certain patterns, such as the frequency of the word “then” and the grammatical use of “then” after the grammatical subject (“I then” rather than “then I”), was not consistent with Bentley’s use of language (his idiolect), as evidenced in court testimony” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derek_Bentley_case)
Coulthard, M. 1992. ‘Forensic discourse analysis’. In Coulthard, M. (ed.) Advances in Spoken Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge.
Olsson, J. 2004. Forensic Linguistics: An introduction to language, crime and the law. London: Continuum.
Illustrations by Quentin Blake, from Broughton, G. (1968) Success With English. Harmondsworth: Penguin.