Like many people who have had a love affair with words all their lives, I cannot imagine a professional career that did not include language as one of its major components. As a teenager, I envisioned that my future would include lots of reading, writing, dance, and travel. However, in addition to that I was always fascinated with the type of science that helped to solve crimes. It was not uncommon to see me enjoying mysteries, and investigative genres both in print and on film. Although I enjoy a good “who-done-it.” I quickly dismissed years ago any notions of being an investigator or forensic scientists. Much like Moriarty was Holmes’ nemesis, math and science appear to be mine. I have quickly come to realize that I have no aptitude for numbers, figures, or formulas; neither do I have the stomach for bodily fluids and gory scenes.
Despite all of this, something happened to me recently that turned everything on its head. No, I did not just wake up with an unexplained gift like John Travolta’s character in Phenomenon, nor did I suddenly develop a strong constitution. What I did do however is discover something I never knew existed. I made this discovery while watching one of the many forensic and investigative shows on Netflix. This show called Forensic Files Collection told the story of an actual case where a women was murdered by someone who had been writing threatening and harassing letters to her. After having the letters analyzed, a linguist was able to identify unique linguistic patterns that only a few people in the world manifest in their writing. One such pattern is a rhetorical device called ironic repetition. This is when the same verb is used twice in two consecutive sentences with a change in context. For example, in one of the killer’s letters he wrote, “she wanted to break it off, so I broke her neck.” Additionally, the killer used contractions for negative verbs in his writings but he didn’t use contractions for positive verbs. This is odd because most people either don’t use them at all or they use both negative and positive contractions. These two anomalies along with the use of photogrammetry: a science that makes measurements from photographs by using two dimensional photographs to create a three dimensional image, helped convict the killer who turned out to be the victim’s husband.
I have always been aware that there are individuals who work as handwriting analyst or those that could identify where a person is from through their accents and word choice, but never did I fathom that these combined with other unique skills could be used as crime fighting tools. What is the name of this discovery? Forensic Linguistics! It falls under the umbrella of applied linguistics, which is simply the application of linguistic knowledge to forensic content. This content could be in the form of linguistic evidence in a criminal investigation, the language of written law at trial during judicial proceedings or for when one is called to interpret contracts. I am still in the early stages of learning all about this field and its possible applications. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that in the not so distant future, I will be presenting myself as a doctoral candidate to one day become, Dr. Rachel Evans, the unlikely accidental scientist.