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Forensic linguistics is a branch of investigation which is rarely touched upon in crime fiction but holds a fascinatingly deep reservoir of possibilities in terms of plot. At it’s most basic, it’s an analysis of verbal or written text to identify aspects and patterns of phrasology in helping narrow down the field of suspects.

In a recent edition of The New Yorker, there is an article written by Jack Hitt where he asks if linguistics can solve crimes. The answer is undoubtedly yes and there is an insightful case study involving one of the pioneers of modern-day linguistic forensics, Roger Shuy who has gone on record to state:

“Forensic linguistics can do for language crimes, such as bribery, blackmail, and extortion, what DNA has done for violent crimes. It could offer a counterweight to the many old-school methods, like lineups and unrecorded police interrogations, that are heavily relied upon despite serious flaws.”

So what’s this ‘Devil’s Strip’ you’re wondering about then?

A young juvenile was kidnapped in Illinois, USA, sometime around the start of Professor Shuy’s career. The police had a field of suspects but they couldn’t make any headway with their investigation. In fact, they were stumped. The note itself stated: (emphasis is mine)

Do you ever want to see your precious little girl
again? Put $10,000 cash in a diaper bag. Put it
in the green trash kan on
the devil strip at corner 18th and Carlson.
Don’t bring anybody along.
No kops!! Come alone! I’ll be watching you
all the time. Anyone with you,
deal is off and dautter is dead!!!

For those of you who live or have been to the US, you may know that the patch of grass that exists between the sidewalk and the street is known as the ‘tree belt’ or ‘tree lawn’ or ‘sidewalk buffer’. The police handed the notes to Roger Shuy and here’s where it gets interesting. He studied the letters and came to a couple of conclusions;

  • The kidnapper/author of the notes was an educated man playing dumb. Even semi-literate criminals were able to spell the word ‘cop’ correctly. To misspell it ‘kop’ demonstrated a very unusual mispelling especially when taken in conjuction with the word ‘kan’ (sic)
  • Anyone who can spell the word ‘precious’ could also spell spell simpler words like ‘cop’, ‘can’ or ‘daughter’
  • That the kidnapper from was from the town of Akron, Ohio

“How the hell did he know he came from Akron, Ohio” the police probably asked?

Well, Roger Shuy, by chance in an earlier research project, discovered that the patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street was known as the The Devil’s Striponly in the town of Akron, Ohio and nowhere else. In fact, its a phrase that is unique to that town.

There was only one man amongst the lists of suspects who was from Akron, Ohio. He was immediately arrested and charged and later convicted, thanks to the work and research of Professor Roger Shuy and his pioneering work with forensic linguistics.

Sources/Further Reading

The New Yorker : Article by Jack Hitt July 23rd 2012

Forensic Linguistics Applying Scientific Principles.pdf

Prof. Roger Shuy’s website