Understanding the Language of Forensic Linguistics

The conviction of sexual crimes has come to rely heavily on forensic evidence and DNA testing. By matching the DNA found at the scene of the crime to the accused, prosecutors strengthen their case even as the defense tries to circumvent its way around this evidence. While most of us have heard of forensic evidence like blood, semen and other bodily fluids, and body parts like hair, skin and nails, there’s a new kind emerging on the horizon of forensic science. Forensic linguistic research as it’s being called, is capable of identifying offenders by the way they type out text messages and communicate using instant messengers and email.


Dr Tim Grant, the Deputy Director of the Center for Forensic Linguistics at Aston University in Birmingham in the United Kingdom is the pioneer in this discipline which he claims can be used to identify perpetrators of sexual crimes by examining the language they use and their texting styles in sexually-explicit conversations and other incriminating material, especially those that have been proven to lead to sex crimes or end in child pornography. The technique can also help predict the age and gender of the writer with a certain degree of success, according to Dr Grant.


The academic showcased his findings on language analysis at the recently concluded BA Festival of Science organized by the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Liverpool, in “The BA Joseph Lister Award Lecture – Txt crimes, sex crimes and murder: the science of forensic linguistics”. While the majority of law-abiding citizens will welcome this innovative means of identification, there are others who will raise a hue and cry on the invasion of privacy that this technique relies upon. With the government needing to keep tabs on all personal communication, be it text messages, emails or instant messages, for this kind of forensic analysis to work, there’s going to be an uproar from privacy advocates.


But on the other hand, looking at the positive side of things, this should serve as a deterrent to those who are emboldened to commit sexual and other crimes hiding behind the cloak of anonymity that the Internet offers. These criminals are usually adept at hiding and erasing their electronic footprints, but when it comes to the way they talk and type, well, they don’t have a clue that experts are waiting in the wings to establish an identity using these aspects. Even if they try to hide behind an assumed and artificial way of communicating, they’re bound to slip up sooner or later, and that’s when they’re going to fall into the long arms of the law.

Dr Grant is enlisting the public in his attempts to create a database of text messaging profiles; with more than 7000 kinds of texting styles forming a part of his research, he is asking people to submit text samples to the

Forensic Linguistics site. The methods that Dr Grant uses are more objective than subjective; they rely on quantifiable rigorous methodology and empirical techniques rather than being based on unquantifiable instinctive expert opinion.

As with other technology that seek to pin the blame on the accused like penile plethysmography, this technique too will be surrounded in controversy with both pundits and laymen questioning its authenticity and validity now and in the years to come.

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