In September, the New York Times published an anonymous letter sharply criticizing President Donald Trump. The author claimed to be in the Trump administration’s inner circle—working on the White House staff. The writer also claimed to be a part of a resistance movement, working to thwart some of the President’s plans. Pundits speculated for weeks: Who wrote it? The guessing game called attention to an unusual investigation method. The technique doesn’t involve fingerprints or DNA analysis. Instead, experts study words.
Forensic linguists investigate language. They attempt to prove authorship based on writing style. Sometimes forensic linguists seek to identify an anonymous writer; sometimes they hope to catch a criminal. To do so, these language detectives study everything from emails and texts to novels and ransom notes. They’re looking for patterns like odd spellings and punctuation, vocabulary, or how a certain person puts words together.
Think about people you know well. Do they use certain words or phrases often like “easy as pie” or “fantabulous”? Do they say toward or towards? Different from or different than?
A Set of Choices
“Language is a set of choices,” Duquesne University computer and language scientist Patrick Juola says. Those choices can be unique identifiers.
It’s easy to be careless with words. After all, we use thousands of them every day. God says, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18 NIV) What would an analysis of your speech reveal?
One technique of forensic linguists is examining ordinary words like of, with, the, and and. “We all use them, but we don’t use them in the same way,” Juola says. Same goes for punctuation.
Revealing the Writers
Juola has worked in the forensic linguistics field for several big cases. He identified J.K. Rowling as the author of a book by someone using the pen-name Robert Galbraith. He ran two of Rowling’s books, Galbraith’s book, and six other novels into his computer. He analyzed the language and concluded that The Cuckoo’s Calling matched Rowling’s style. Rowling eventually admitted she’d written it.
It wasn’t the first time language revealed an author. Linguistic analysis figured out which of the Federalist Papers Alexander Hamilton wrote and which James Madison did. One clue was a variation of a single word: Madison used whilst; Hamilton preferred while.
By analyzing William Shakespeare’s plays, modern scholars have concluded that Shakespeare co-wrote plays with several different playwrights. Shakespeare’s style giveaway? He used many hyphenated words like hobby-horse, bare-faced, church-like, grass-green.
Mystery, Science, and Truth
Some author mysteries may never be solved. Bible scholars have worked for centuries to discover the writers of Ruth, Esther, Hebrews, and other books. Just when they think they’ve found one tell-tale language sign, another points to someone else. Perhaps this is because of the Holy Spirit’s hand throughout this amazing book. (2 Peter 1:21)
For most works, Juola says linguistic “science is very good.” He says experts can usually tell personality, gender, education level, and age by someone’s writing. Not even odd words or purposefully bad grammar throw investigators off. As Shakespeare said, “The truth will out” . . . or did he?