Forensic Psycholinguistics: Using Language Analysis for Identifying and Assessing Offenders

By Smith, Sharon S.; Shuy, Roger W. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Forensic Psycholinguistics: Using Language Analysis for Identifying and Assessing Offenders


Smith, Sharon S., Shuy, Roger W., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Early one Friday afternoon, police officials from a midsized city contacted the local office of the FBI. A 911 caller had just left a message: seven bombs had been planted at a petroleum facility, and it would blow up within 24 hours. The male caller left no information about his identity or motive.

Police officers began gathering evidence from the area around the petroleum facility while the local FBI office quickly contacted the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) at Quantico, Virginia. Realizing that these bombs had the potential to kill or injure hundreds of employees and cause millions of dollars in damage, FBI agents from the NCAVC and the FBI Academy's Behavioral Science Unit immediately began analyzing the recording of the call. (1) Within hours, they advised local authorities of their assessment of the offender's possible characteristics and the potential risk of the threat's legitimacy. What had the agents discovered in the recording of the telephone call? How did they find it?

ANALYZING LANGUAGE

Law enforcement agencies routinely train their new recruits to recognize crime scene evidence. Hairs and fibers, DNA, and ballistic patterns represent examples of forensic evidence that can provide investigative leads and tie offenders to their crimes. On the other hand, criminal investigative analysis, formerly known as criminal profiling, is an investigative tool that can link offenders to their crimes by analyzing their behavior.

Criminal Investigative Analysis

Criminal investigative analysis originally was designed for, and works best in, investigations of serial criminal acts, such as serial homicides, rapes, or arsons, but it also can be used to analyze individual crimes. This process examines the crime scene evidence and information about the victim to assess the offender's behavior. The offender's behavior at the crime scene and interaction with victims can help reveal the motive for committing the crime. It also can help investigators construct a description of the offender's personality and demographic characteristics.

One type of behavior often overlooked, or underused, exists in the offender's actual language. The offender's written or spoken language can provide investigators with a wealth of information. This information, in turn, suggests the types of analyses investigators may request when referring their cases to the FBI for criminal investigative analysis. What kind of information does language provide?

Sociolinguistics

Both written and spoken language have features that may reveal an individual's geographical origins; ethnicity or race; age; sex; and occupation, education level, and religious orientation or background. Sociolinguistics is the study of language variability, including the relationships between social characteristics and linguistic features.

Geographic Origins

Although Americans tend to move frequently, their speech often retains remnants of the regional dialect of the area where they were reared. For example, most Americans easily can distinguish the late president John F. Kennedy's Massachusetts accent from former president Jimmy Carter's Georgia accent. Some sociolinguists can distinguish even more subtle regional dialects, such as differences in the speech of native Virginians from Norfolk as opposed to those from Fairfax. Written communications offer fewer clues, although vocabulary (word choice) and grammar can sometimes indicate geographic origin. In Pennsylvania, when people from Philadelphia want a carbonated soft drink, they tend to ask for a "soda," whereas those from Pittsburgh more likely request a "pop."

Ethnicity or Race

Native ethnic groups, as well as immigrants from various countries, may retain remnants of their native language. In one case in which a business owner received anonymous threat letters, the writer seemed comfortable with English, but wrote some sentences in a way that indicated a specific non-English language influence, such as using a word order with a subject-object-verb sequence ("he finally will the seriousness of the problem recognize") rather than the typical English subject-verb-object order ("he finally will recognize the seriousness of the problem"). …

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