Forensic Linguistics

Interested in language? Shouldn’t every teacher be? Got a spare 8 minutes? Ever wondered what Forensic Linguistics is all about? You can hear a very interesting interview from Radio 4’s Word of Mouth about how language (including texting style) can betray incongruities with the claimed age, gender, social class & native language of the user and how evidence for real life cases (much more serious than copying homework) was gathered. Dr. Tim Grant, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Linguistics at Aston University explains how here (until Tue 13th at 16:00).

Very similar skills and processes are used to determine the composer of an unidentified instrumental piece of music. Details of instrumentation, national style, harmonic & rhythmic language, division of octave etc. are often unconsciously processed, allowing the listener to pin down the historical period, country of origin and, in many cases, the individual musical signature(s).

9 thoughts on “Forensic Linguistics”

  1. Thanks for that, Tim – I’ve changed the link to the one you suggested. I really enjoyed the piece. It’s a fascinating topic, which you really brought to life with the chosen examples and your lucid description of the stories.

    May I take up your kind offer and pose one question? Would you be able to describe any benefits which you think a heightened awareness of this linguistic outlook would confer on teachers?



  2. I listened to this programme too and was fascinated by the conclusions that could be drawn from analysis of people’s style of expression. Like Alan, and maybe because I was on my way to an orchestral rehearsal, I also thought of the link with styles of composition and wondered if composers always betray their own identity even when they are trying to mimic the style of another composer. (can’t think of any examples offhand though!) Is it like the analysis of the 40 year old man trying to message like a 14 year old girl – the expert can always tell if they look/listen/analyse carefully enough?

  3. Your comment about the expert always being able to tell, prompts me to make a confession. Having read Peter Ackroyd’s “Chatterton” I became intrigued by the idea of perpetrating a musical, as opposed to literary, hoax. In March 2006, I inserted a guitar ensemble piece entitled “Sunrise Over Soweto,” written in the South African “township” style into a concert programme, in the name of Themba Nkoetze. There were around 500 people in the audience. In August 2007, I played a solo “flamenco” piece entitled El Viento del Este by the non-existent Xavier Trastorno for an audience of around 120. In neither case did anyone bat an eyelid – or, it seems, an earlid.

  4. I guess the main relevance to teaching is plagiarism work, my collegaue at the new Centre, David Woolls (see writes plagiarism detection software and we’ve had a number of cases at University level education – plagirising essays, and even PhD theses. Direct copying of chunks of text can be fairly easy for the knowledgable teacher to spot but close paraphrasing can be more difficult. Of course such paraphrasing can reveal a teaching need rather than an intent to deceive by the student.

    With regard to Alan’s comments about music, I guess it depends upon the expertise of the audience – as I’m sure you are aware there have been a number of cases of music plagiarism and other forms of copying, hoaxing or parodying. I know I couldn’t help in such cases but there are certainly experts out there who can. This is a site which might interest


    [Alan the link went a bit wroong – the final full stop is the problem.]

  5. Thanks, Tim – link sorted once and for all, I hope. Thanks also for the link to the UCLA site. I read the Isley Brothers vs Michael Bolton case ( ) with interest and would recommend this example to readers, as the audio clips supplied enlighten the argument more than words ever could. I was also interested in the third paragraph of the comment which flags up the problem of discerning the difference between “misappropriation” and “unconscious but legitimate homage.” When I was studying music, a composition lecturer pointed out to me that a theme in a piece I was “composing” seemed like a direct lift from one currently being practised by a French horn player. It seemed that he and I frequently practised in rooms near the composition lecturer’s tutorial room. I say “it seemed” as I was unaware of the presence of the horn player. For the purposes of seeming like a wholesome character though, I’d like to stress what I see as the difference between plagiarism (conscious or otherwise) and hoaxing. I see it as being analogous to the difference between using someone else’s words in your voice as opposed to using your own words while impersonating someone else.

  6. My own experience of duplicity as a student (yes I’m blushing!) involved inviting the thoroughly musical, and lovestruck future Mr Coe to help me with my harmony exercise in First year Music at Edinburgh Uni. You would think, well I did, that harmonising Bach chorales would not offer that much opportunity for the discovery of fraud. However the tutor must have recognised the departure from my usual pedestrian style and could pinpoint the tell-tale signs. “But why did you write this particular bass note?” he said “It’s inspired!” I had no idea. Case closed.

    There now. I’ve owned up.

  7. Thanks for that, Malcolm. It looks very interesting and I’d be very keen to attend if it weren’t for the fact that our Scottish summer (usually a 30-minute event) is long over by then and we’ll have been back in school for a month by then. I hope it goes well.

    Best wishes


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