Forensic Linguistics

In Michael Cannell’s book Incendiary, about the manhunt for a 1950s serial bomber, detectives noticed a small disparity in dialect that they hoped would lead them to the fugitive’s neighborhood.

Michael Cannell, read by Mignon Fogarty,
April 20, 2017
Episode #565

Page 2 of 2

the clues forensic linguists find in your writing

The JK Rowling Case

Despite this early success, it took another forty years for forensic linguistics to come into its own. In 1995 The New York Times and Washington Post published the notorious Unabomber’s rambling 35,000-word manifesto. A social worker in Upstate New York named David Kaczynski recognized the idiosyncratic phrasings and alerted authorities. In response, FBI linguist James Fitzgerald matched the language in the manifesto—the Unabomber’s reference to African-Americans as “negros,” for example, and his use of “chimerical” and other rarified words—to letters and other texts written by David Kaczynski’s estranged brother Ted, a math professor turned recluse. Forensic linguistics reached a new level of legitimacy when a judge accepted Fitzgerald’s word analysis as cause to issue a search warrant for Ted Kaczynski’s Montana cabin where police found bomb-making materials.  

Today forensic linguistics increasingly relies on computer analysis, as was the case in a recent literary riddle. 

Today forensic linguistics increasingly relies on computer analysis, as was the case in a recent literary riddle. “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” a detective novel about a supermodel’s suicide, was published in 2013 to respectable reviews, though critics noted that it was suspiciously polished for a first-time author. The book was written by a retired member of the Royal Military police under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Or so it was assumed until The Sunday Times of London received an anonymous tweet claiming that J.K. Rowling was the real author. The mystery novel now had its own mystery. 

The Sunday Times hired Patrick Juola, a computer scientist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who used “stylometric” software to compare word usage in “The Cuckoo’s Calling” with the Harry Potter texts. The program considers millions of features, including most frequently used words and patterns of words used together. “Writers can choose to express an idea with a few precise words or bunch of common, general ones,” Juola wrote in Scientific American. “We’re not even conscious of many of these choices.”

Michael Cannell is the author of the new book Incendiary about the manhunt for a 1950s serial bomber. Pick up a copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, or Apple. You can also listen to a special clip from the Incendiary audiobook, available on Amazon or Audible, below.

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