Signal in the noise: forensic linguistics and forensic speech science

This image shows a computer monitor with a spectrogram on it. In the background there are newspaper cuttings pinned to the walls. On the desk in front there is a keyboard and a mouse. The whole aesthetic is dark, like a criminal investigative lab, and a single lamp casts a moody, subdued light over the scene. © Generated by DALL-E

If asked to name a subject that might help to solve crime and prevent harm, very few people are likely to say “linguistics”. This is hardly surprising. If we think about the subjects that we might study before going on to be involved in criminal investigations at all, we’re more likely to think of hard sciences like ballistics, blood spatter analysis, and DNA testing. The idea that the social sciences might have something to offer is newer, but over the passing decades we are seeing a relentless rise in the need for the insights that fields like linguistics – specifically forensic linguistics and forensic speech science – can bring. Let’s just take three high-profile examples.

For most people, the 2012 London Olympics was an iconic celebration of talent and perseverance, but for a select few, it presented a prime opportunity to target athletes with online abuse. As a result, the concept of “trolling” hit mainstream headlines and we were forced to confront and learn about a new, dark concept. Only five years later, in 2017 Donald Trump was elected as US President and the concept of “fake news” took over the airwaves. After coming to terms with the fact that people could post content so awful that it could drive people into hiding or worse, we had to acclimatise to the new reality that they could also post content that was dangerously misleading and manipulative. We even learned that these information operations are not limited to small pressure groups or niche concerns. Instead, they can be state sponsored, highly sophisticated, and deeply invasive. As if that wasn’t enough, 2023 saw the explosive advancement of artificial intelligence – software that can spoof voices, generate novel texts, even produce fake but highly convincing videos of people saying and doing offensive or incriminating things.

Abuse. Manipulation. Deception. At the risk of stating the obvious, the thread running through all of these is language. But threatening messages, misleading information, and fake content barely scratches the surface of the types of issues that a forensic linguist or forensic speech scientist might consider. We can be found working on cases as diverse as Hollywood plagiarism disputes to covert intelligence recordings to corporate trademark battles. One day, we could be scrolling through thousands of online posts looking for little giveaway linguistic markers that might tell us something about an author. The next day we could be cracking a criminal gang’s coded language. And the day after that, we might be training agents in the field on deception detection.

What does it take to become a forensic linguist or forensic speech scientist?

If this sounds interesting to you, then you’re probably someone with inherent interests in both language and crime. You probably also enjoy carrying out your own investigations, problem solving, and learning new skills. But whilst these are an excellent start, if you really want to move into this field, you need a little more. The good news though is that you don’t have to start your journey with an undergraduate degree in a subject like English language or linguistics. In fact, plenty of forensic linguists have arrived here from subjects like psychology, sociology, law, criminology, literature, data science, and beyond. Others have come in from relevant lines of work such as policing, intelligence agencies, and the broader security sector. Most people begin to specialise in forensic linguistics or forensic speech science – or if they’re lucky, both – through an advanced degree such as an MSc, and some will even go on to do a PhD on a specific topic of their choice. The key ingredients, though, are an eye for detail and a willingness to keep digging when other people would give up and clock off.

Where can I learn more?

If you’re interested in learning more about just one way to study forensic linguistics and forensic speech science, we’d love to meet you at our next Postgraduate Open Day. You can meet students and staff, tour the campus, and get advice on applications, fees, funding, and support. Much better than that, however, you can usually talk to one of our forensic linguists or forensic speech scientists. We’d love to hear what you’re interested in, where you’ve come from, and where you want to go. And if we can, we’d love to help you on your journey there.

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