If you handle an object, you leave your fingerprints all over it. When that object is examined closely, your identity can be easily revealed. In a way, the same is true when you write something. Every individual has what linguists call an idiolect: a personal dialect, or a sort of verbal fingerprint left behind in the form of your preference for certain words, phrases, and grammar. Sometimes, these linguistic profiles can help identify an anonymous author.
No doubt internet sleuths have studied the language of an anonymous op-ed in The New York Times to identify the unnamed Trump administration official who penned it claiming to be part of the “resistance.” Some think the word “lodestar” is a linguistic smoking gun, suggesting Vice President Mike Pence could be the author, because he’s used the word in the past.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, personal dialect forensics is not nearly this simple.
There are numerous examples from history of language being used to trace someone’s identity. In 1887, several letters were published purporting to show that the Irish nationalists led by Charles Stewart Parnell supported violence. But a dramatic cross-examination revealed the letters had been forged by a man named Richard Pigott, a former supporter of Parnell. When asked to write the word “hesitancy,” Pigott misspelled the word as “hesitency,” which had also been misspelled in the letters.
There are other famous cases that make good telling. There’s the Unabomber, whose manifesto looked familiar to David Kaczynski, who noted that some phrases, such as “cool-headed logician,” were favored by his brother Ted Kaczynski in other writings. Ted, of course, turned out to be the culprit. There’s the anonymously-authored book Primary Colors, about Bill Clinton’s campaign, whose author was identified as columnist Joe Klein by a professor of English at Vassar College named Don Foster. Foster’s name pops up often in discussions of forensic linguistics. He identified Klein on the basis of stylistic quirks, such as his liking for words ending in –ish (e.g., wonkish) and certain coinages (such as “unironic” and “tarmac-hopping”). And: a love of colons. More recently, tweets sent by President Trump have been scrutinized and identified as not having been written by him, thanks to peculiar word choices or punctuation (notably, use of en-dashes).
In the 1930s, the man who kidnapped famous American aviator Charles Lindbergh’s son was profiled from the language he used in ransom notes. Authorities …read more