F is for Forensic linguistics

11 12 2011

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)

References:

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.


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60 responses

11 12 2011
Marcos Benevides

Ah, task-based language teaching at its best. Sorry, Scott, that was probably from one of the students in my ESP (English for Sinister Purposes) class. He failed, obviously.

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Haha, Marcos. Actually, come to think of it, the ability to convince your interlocutors that they should pay you a vast amount of money on a totally false pretext is a very sophisticated linguistic skill. I wonder if it has a descriptor in the Common European Framework?

11 12 2011
Richard Whiteside (@nutrich)

When I was looking for a flat to rent in Cadiz I contacted a person advertising a place that looked a little too good to be true, but I thought I’d get in touch anyway. Despite using a Spanish website to advertise and receiving my inquiry in Spanish, this person replied in rather poor English asking for upfront payment to secure the property. He also declared that he was based in Liverpool and was some sort of bilingual academic, therefore he would not be able to meet us in Cadiz. I, however, was in Manchester, so suggested we met up in England. This confused the person greatly, I think, though they still attempted another reply, which repeated a lot of the previous email without making much sense at all. I thought at the time, that if the person had not claimed to be such a linguistic high-flyer, their ruse may have been a lot more plausible!

11 12 2011
Mike Harrison

Haha, that’s brilliant, as is Marcos’ comment. Just a thought, although forensic linguistics doesn’t feature much (or a all) in crime literature, those of us who are active online engage in it all the time. Ever got a tweet saying there was a funny picture of you on the internet, or been promised a free iPad upon a simple mouse click? If you have, and you’ve spotted something amiss, you’re a bit of a forensic linguist.

11 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Mike, for a while I was saving those fake blog comments that one gets, congratulating you on your blog, and hoping you’ll link to their porn site. They would make interesting material for students of forensic linguistics to cut their teeth on. Here’s one, more or less taken at random from my collection:

Nearly all of the things you articulate is astonishingly accurate and that makes me ponder why I hadn’t looked at this with this light previously. This particular piece truly did switch the light on for me personally as far as this subject matter goes. Nevertheless at this time there is just one position I am not necessarily too cozy with so whilst I try to reconcile that with the main theme of the position, allow me see what the rest of your visitors have to point out.Well done.

And this one is – I guess – the result of an over-reliance on translation software:

Guard up the huge patch of process, I predict handful reports on this internet point besides I swallow that your fabric point is rattling stimulating besides has fixeds of glorious direction.

11 12 2011
cindyhauert

I love crime novels and am really disapointed that yours was never published–I would have loved to read it.
I am always amazed that people fall for the sort of scams you write about. The English is always wonky, even those purportedly from telecomm carriers and banks. Does this tell us something about the general level of literacy?

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Well, my friend ‘Gary’ subsequently reported that at least one person had fallen for the scam:

“A friend in one country was taken in by the whole thing and actually ended up trying to send money. Luckily, in the end, she didn’t succeed but I fear one or two more people might have been enticed to do the same had the English in the email been either better or sounded more like me. Won’t be long before they can do that too, I’m sure.”

All the more reason to take preventive courses in forensic linguistics, perhaps!

11 12 2011
phil2wade

Sounds great. The Mentalist, mixed with a bit of House and Lie to Me, even Murder she Wrote maybe. We could call him The Word Master and he/she could be a consultant for the FBI/MI5 or even a private dick. Of course, you’d need some catchphrases and possibly a secret past life of forging insurance claims.

Let’s start auditioning now.

11 12 2011
Jessica Mackay

Vicki Hollett invited readers to ‘pitch’ ideas for a linguistic detective cop show on her blog last year;

http://www.vickihollett.com/?p=2976

She also included links to Prof. Coulthard’s lectures for those interested in learning more.

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that link, Jessica – I didn’t realise that Vicki had beaten me to it!😉

I’m looking forward to viewing Coulthard’s lecture.

11 12 2011
Andrew

Interesting, Scott. The first thing I noticed about the email was the lack of spacing after the punctuation marks: a lot of my Chinese students do this as well.

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Ah-ha! A clue! Now if we could narrow down the 1bn Chinese speakers in the world to just one or two….😉

11 12 2011
Jessica Mackay

If we’re venturing into the criminal underworld, can we please investigate the identity of the perpetrator of heinous crimes against canines ‘The Dogmelter’ who appeared in your last blog post?

11 12 2011
unpluggedreflections

I have been toying with the idea of leaving the world of ELT and studying forensic linguistics for a while. I see myself as the heroine of the drama just like Phil describes above. In the meantime, I practice my techniques here – http://www.thetext.co.uk.

Jem

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that link, Jem. This is the website – and insititute – of the same John Olsson who wrote the book I mentioned. You wonder a bit why they would want to give away so many of the ‘secrets’ of their investigative methods – it may simply lead to better-written faked suicide notes etc.

11 12 2011
Damian Williams

What a joy it is to wake up on a Sunday and be met by such an interesting blog post.

Scott, have you read ‘The City and The City’ by China Miéville? Part crime novel, part dystopia, there’s quite a bit of forensic linguistics going on.

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks forf the tip, Damian – I’ll look out for it. (Put it on my Xmas list, perhaps?)

11 12 2011
cindyhauert

This topic reminded me of an article I read in the ELT Journal a couple of years ago: “Dearest beloved one, I need your assistance”: the rhetoric of spam mail by Aysha Iqbal Viswamohan, Charles Hadfield, and Jill Hadfield (vol. 64/1 Jan 2010.
The authors discribe how “The ‘Dearly beloved’ genre of spam email is distinguished by a combination of elaborate and formal language together with emotive and dramatic rhetorical devices. At the same time, the emails exhibit a number of colloquialisms, syntactical, lexical and punctuation errors and inappropriacies, which contrast oddly with the elevated style.”
It’s fascinating reading, well worth a look if you are interested in this sort of thing.

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for having made that connection, Cindy. I’m going to dig that article out.

11 12 2011
RogerB

Danuta Reah’s crime novel Night Angels features a forensic linguist.

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Ah ha! I knew I was on to a good thing! Another one to add to my Xmas list. Thanks for the tip, Roger.

11 12 2011
eslkathy

My husband wonders what I’m cackling about on this quiet Sunday morning. Thanks for sharing the translation software text!

I once received an email (ostensibly) from a former student that was very much like the one in your post. Since she was an intermediate level speaker of English who had left the class because she was going abroad, I hesitated longer over the delete button than usual. Ultimately, the deciding factor was the request for money. That didn’t feel right (delete!). But I’m thinking that this could be an area of specialization for your forensic linguistics sleuth: recognizing L1 patterns overlaid onto L2, etc.

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

“…recognizing L1 patterns overlaid onto L2, etc….” Yes, this is perhaps an area where we language teachers, with our exposure to a wide variety of interlanguage types, would be well situated to adjudicate. (I’m always intrigued how bad script-writers are at writing ‘foreigner talk’ – it often vacillates between a ‘me Tarzan you Jane’ level, and the fluent if accented use of sophisticated structures like the third conditional).

11 12 2011
Jason Renshaw

Fascinating!

A couple of years ago I got a request from a friend in the ELT publishing world to lend him some money. I thought it was odd – both the language and tone (and actual request for money), but some investigation around various mutual acquaintances led to the realisation that it was the actual person and the request was a genuine one.

Having known this person for a long time (and after a lot of umming and ahhing), I lent him a rather large sum of money to help him deal with his emergency (paying for the cost of a marriage), and despite all promises to return the funds within a couple of months, I never heard from my ‘friend’ again (other than an apology saying things hadn’t quite worked out and I would be getting my money soon).

I am, quite frankly, still wondering if my forensic linguistic skills let me down and didn’t alert me to a scam. Not a scam as to the person’s identity, but as to how he had clearly lost his marbles and all sense of honour!

– JR

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

I hope your ‘friend’ is a reader of this blog, Jason, and feels sufficiently contrite to return the money! (In the event of which a small gratuity would be most appreciated!)

11 12 2011
takeaphotoand

Obviously not a Criminal Minds fan, hey? Spencer Reid includes forensic linguistics amongst his skills and analyses voices in letters, notes, emails, chat participation etc. He’s also quite cute in a geeky sort of way…

Fiona Mauchline

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Fiona. In fact even Sherlock Holmes solved one or two cases using linguistic evidence, if I recall, though normally of the graphological type.

11 12 2011
steph

A subject close to my heart. In fact before I entered the world of ELT….I was heading for the world of forensic psychology. I completed my degree in Criminology and forensic psychology in the early 90’s – took a “gap year” in the states where I did my CTEFLA and never returned.

I think with the explosion of internet crime the area of forensic linguistics could really become important. Didn’t know you could do an MSc in it….now that might be something to study!!

12 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Go for it, Steph – as I mentioned above, the well-honed linguistic skills of the language teacher would be well suited to a career in forensic linguistics – and think of all the good you could do! (Aston Unviersity offers the MSc, I’m pretty sure).

12 12 2011
Rob

Say, why not a novel about a ‘terrorist’ who has studied forensic linguistics and uses this knowledge to upset corrupt governments and corporations by drafting memos and press releases that expose their evil ways?🙂

Apropos FBI (Phil), many years ago, my partner and I started receiving anonymous, threatening letters, some handwritten, others typed, which indicated the sender knew a bit about our personal lives. As you can imagine, we were shocked and frightened. As a last resort, we enlisted the services of the FBI. The agent in charge came to the conclusion that my partner was drafting the letters to call attention to herself. In addition to my intimate relationship with ‘the suspect’, my amateur forensic linguistic skills left no doubt in my mind that the FBI forensics lab was out to lunch. For one thing, my partner had only recently moved to the States from Germany and had little if any exposure to much of the (obscene) vocabulary contained in the letters (written in English). But none of that was evidence enough for the Feds.

That was before I had studied under Malcom Coulthard at Aston. Had it been the reverse, I would have much rather called on him to help me crack the case. In the end, the letters just stopped coming, but not before I’d done some sleuthing and made some enlightening discoveries. Hey, I feel a story of my own coming on…

Rob

2 01 2012
Cameron Rogers

No need for a novel about a terrorist that exposes governments memos – they are called Wiki-leaks.

When I read the OP the first thing I thought of was Spencer Reid in Criminal Minds. He does exactly this to solve crimes or at least to profile criminals.

12 12 2011
phil2wade

Well, Rob has made the pilot episode I think. After this event the protagonist then freelances out his skills or even teams up with a crack band of linguisticy detectives.One could be a graphologist perhaps. We could call the show The Language of Lies. Quick, call the BBC. Scott, you could do cameos as the world’s leading expert from time to time.

12 12 2011
Alastair Grant

This just goes to show that Halliday was right re. discourse anaylisis and that maybe we all do this kind of detective work when we read any text.

As T.S. Eliot so rightly says, criticism is as inevitable as breathing.

If Universal Grammar exsists, maybe we also all have the capacity for universal criticism, using these little babies to help us:

http://language.la.psu.edu/spcom497b/halliday.html

12 12 2011
Alastair Grant

Now if I could just work out where I left my universal typing gene, I’d be a happy chappie…

12 12 2011
Almagro

Generating ideas for an L.S.I. show (Language Scene Investigation):

Characters: the syntax slayer, the discourse coroner, the collocations SWAT, the bilingual accomplice, the acquisition district attorney, the dogme profiler, etc…

First episode: “The Text Whisperer”.

Copyright @ Almagro, 2011.

12 12 2011
Merve Oflaz

I feel like a forensic linguist nowadays while checking the writing tasks of the students trying to catch who copied whom:)

13 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Exactly, Merve! In fact many of the tools of forensic linguistics have been applied to the exposure of plagiarism, both literary and academic. The same principle applies: if identical, and unattributed, word sequences (of more than 40 characters) occur in two texts by two differet writers, then one is copying from the other.

Olsson (2004), by the way, notes that “On the Internet and elsewhere you will find many highly sophisticated pieces of software which claim to be able to detect plagiarism. In reality it is one of the simplest forensic linguistic skills to exercise, and no great software, other than search engines, is required” (p. 114). He also shows that many of the anti-plagiarism warnings that are published on university websites are themselves largely copied from other sites!

13 12 2011
Merve Oflaz

Thank you Scott. That was a significant information. It’s hilarious to see plagiarized texts in anti-plagiarism warnings:)

12 12 2011
ET365

Interesting point about the police statement. I wonder where it would sit as a genre? How would Halliday place it? And as for mode – I mean, is it supposed to be an encoding of spoken English, like a transcript, or is it supposed to be a written document?

13 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

British law distinguishes between the police interview and the statement. “An interview is normally conducted by one, usually the more senior, police officer and transcribed by a second. […] Some time after the interview both police officers prepare a typed version of the interview… the text is supposed to be a complete record of what was said during the interview: that is in the words used by the participants, although it need not be totally verbatim — that is, false starts and repetitions are ignored and, if a question has to be repeated or reformulated, this too need not be recorded” (Coulthard, 1992, pp-242-43).

“Records of statements, by contrast, must be verbatim — they must include all and only the words used, in the sequence in which they were produced, and there must be no questioning by the police officers during the statement-taking; in other words, a dictated statement should be an unprompted monologue” (ibid.)

Nowadays, to prevent abuse, it is standard practice to record interviews and statements, thereby rendering the forensic linguist’s job (in the detection of fabrications) largely redundant.

As for the genre of the statement, it is clearly a form of monologue, but with a very specific register and function. No doubt it has been the subject of exhaustive analysis by students of systemic functional linguistics!

13 12 2011
samuelshep

Reminds me of two things: a book by Don Foster who uncovered the real author of Primary Colours which was a lightly fictionalised account of the Clinton campaign published provocatively by Anonymous. The title escapes me, but he also talks about forensic linguistics and Shakespearean authorship. The second is when I was teaching EAP to a group of BA students at an institution in the UK. They submitted assignments made up of about 40% post elementary attempts at complex sentences and 60% copied and pasted from the web. Took me two minutes and google to work out that they had ripped it straight from one of the sites on the course’s reading list. They seemed mystified as to how I had worked it out. Rather more scary was the fact that their regular subject lecturers hadn’t picked up on it and wanted me to pass the assignments.

13 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Sam – yes, the book you refer to is Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous. (You can read about it here). Foster was also responsible for the linguistic research that located the Unabomber.

Nice story about plagiarism, too!

13 12 2011
Tim Grant

I’ve been enjoying your discussion here – I hadn’t realised the potential interest of forensic work for those into the ELT end of linguistics.

Just an observation on police interviews, Malcolm’s quote is now out of date as the law and policy has now moved forward. All suspect interviews and most witness interviews in the UK are now tape or video recorded and so we now no longer depend on (the often inaccurate) abilities of a police simultaneous transcriber. The tape recording will be transcribed for Court use but these transcriptions are only very rarely challenegd (and the tape is the evidence not the transcript).

Just to point you to a few FL websites which may interest:

– There’s our Centre for Forensic Lingusitics site at http:\\www.forensiclinguistics.net

– I aggragate FL news and stories of interst at http://www.scoop.it/t/language-society-and-law/
– and finally for those interested in Crime Fiction I provided a guest post at Clarissa Drapers writers blog http://clarissadraper.blogspot.com/2011/02/mystery-writers-guide-to-forensic.html

Tim Grant

13 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Tim, for that clarification, and for those links. Those interested should check out the interview with Tim at http://youtu.be/HitHpC1PSVc

13 12 2011
Matt

Fashions in spam come and go. It used to be deposed African billionaires wanting my help with disposing of their stash, but now I get a lot of emails from banks asking me to update my personal information for their records. They are mostly ‘British’ banks, but some of the English contained in the emails does not sound terribly British.

A recent one that made me smile was supposedly from Lloyds TSB. It was signed ‘Lloyds TSB Costumer Support’ which suggested that some kind of fancy-dress was involved. It also had ‘© Uk Lloyds TSB 2011’ on the bottom, and ‘Uk’ was also in the email address.

I am sometimes tempted to reply to the emails, as my immediate reaction is to want to give some language feedback, but it’s probably safer to bin them rather than get mixed up with internet gangsters.

18 12 2011
eslkathy

‘Lloyds TSB Costumer Support’ — too funny!

13 12 2011
Rob

I’d like to add one more reference to the lists above: Discourse Analysis in the Legal Context (Shuy, 2003). In Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi Hamilton (eds),The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, Blackwell Publishing, 437-452.

14 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Coincidentally, this message has just been posted to the IATEFL Teacher Education Special Interest Group’s discussion list:

Hope you get this on time, Sorry I didn’t inform you about my trip, because it was impromptu. I had to be in Spain for a program. The program was successful but my journey has turned sour. I misplaced my wallet on my way to the hotel which contained some cash, credit card and my cell phone. Presently my passport and my things are been held down by the hotel management pending when i make payment.

Please, I need you to help me with a loan of 2,350Euros to pay my hotel bills and to get my sorry self back home. I’ve been to the embassy and Police, but they are not responding to the matter effectively, I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist me with, I will return the money back to you as soon as i return, let me know if you can be of any help ASAP.

I currently don’t have a phone where i can be reached.

Please let me know immediately.

Thanks,

It’s interesting comparing it to ‘Gary’s’ fake letter in my original post. e.g. ‘I’m having some difficulties’ has morphed into ‘my journey’s turned sour’, and most of the punctuation and orthogrpahical problems have been fixed.

14 12 2011
Stephanie Ashford

In this Guardian article, the journalist Rowenna Davis describes how she engaged her hacker in conversation.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/oct/16/email-hacker-identity-rowenna-davis?INTCMP=SRCH

Judging from some inconsistencies in style in the hacker’s replies, I suspect that Rowenna is actually talking to more than person. Either that, or the hacker got a bit of help from an English teacher.

14 12 2011
Rob

Is this a lucrative new market, ECP (English for Criminal Purposes)? Or have these people been sitting in on our classes all along?🙂

Rob

14 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

That story put the wind up me to such an extent that I’ve just reconfigured my Google accounts so that they require a double security check if being accessed from a different computer than my own. Thanks, Stephanie!

14 12 2011
Stephanie Ashford

On the subject of plagiarism, I have a free and almost foolproof method of detecting where German-speaking students have copied and pasted. It’s in those sections where all the commas are where they should be.

I doubt that my comma argument would stand up in court, however.

15 12 2011
Cherry M Philipose (@cherrymp)

Another interesting and informative post along with lively comments that have many links for follow up reading and ideas to ponder🙂.

With the advent and more importantly the spread of the internet, online crimes are also ever on the rise. Happy to read and learn about ‘Forensic Linguistics’ and its relevance in fighting back this (at least at a very personal level).

16 12 2011
Ben Goldstein

Fascinating discussion here. Funnily enough, I received the same original message from “Gary” and, at first, was taken in completely.

Reading through this, it struck me that you could design ‘forensic tasks’ for students, like “spot the difference between an authentic email from your bank and a fake one”, etc. or “identify which lingusitic items you would include in a spam filter?”

Talking of spam filters, I’ve got quite a sophisticated one that seems spot words like “Viagra” spelt in a hundred different ways and embedded in the most abstract poetry but one spam mail slipped through today with the subject line: “I know where paradise is, let’s go there together” !

Incidentally, Scott, there’s a “A Forensic Case Study” in David Crystal’s book “Internet Linguistics”. It’s disturbing but well worth reading.

http://cw.routledge.com/textbooks/9780415602679/in-linguistics.asp

16 12 2011
Lorna Liebeck

Also, David Crystal will be the keynote speaker at the IATEFL BESIG 2012 Summer Symposium in Paris. The topic will be ‘Language and the Internet’.

16 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

A neat twist to the crime novel based around forensic linguistics might be to have the expert himself exposed as the sender of faked emails etc – malevolently using his expertise for personal gain. (I bet David Crystal could write some very convincing spam!)

16 12 2011
Scott Thornbury

Ben wrote “it struck me that you could design ‘forensic tasks’ for students, like “spot the difference between an authentic email from your bank and a fake one”, etc. or “identify which lingusitic items you would include in a spam filter?”

What a great idea! After all, we want our learners to become good ‘language detectives’ – so as to get the most out of their exposure to texts – so why not take this literally, and have them ‘solve language crimes’ in the classroom? Another idea might be to see if they can work out which texts in their coursebook are authentic and which have been adapted/simplified – and how.

16 12 2011
Stephanie Ashford

Would a learner be able to spot the difference between an authentic fake email and an inauthentic fake email (i.e. one confected by a coursebook writer)?

16 12 2011
Jane King

I enjoyed that – and it’s so true that we all have to be detectives now, don’t we? I’ve noticed some people are more tuned into linguistic errors – I am, son is, has been from a very young age, husband isn’t… and so on. It’s made me realise that it’s not unlike perception of music – some people hear melody, others rhythm and some are much more aware of lyrics than others.

11 01 2012
Scott Shabot

The field of forensic linguistics has been growing in prominence in the past couple of decades. There is now a profession organization that bears this title (the International Association of Forensic Linguists), as well as the International Association of Forensic Phoneticians, which is closely related. There is at least one journal (the International Journal of Speech, Language, and the Law), formerly known as Journal of Forensic Linguistics, and there seem to be two or three conferences a year devoted to the topic.

Programs in forensic linguistics are offered at several universities (mostly in the United Kingdom), and there are online courses of study either in existence or in the planning stages. Oddly, the scope of the term “forensic linguistics” remains somewhat vague.

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