A MYSTERY MINUTE
By ZJ Czupor
Forensic linguistics reveals identity of famous author
Forensic linguistics is an investigative technique which helps experts determine authorship by identifying quirks in a writer’s style. Thanks to advances in computer technology, forensic linguists can now analyze text with finer accuracy.
Some analyses can be completed in about half an hour. Amazing when you consider that in the early 1960s it took a team of two statisticians and a high-speed computer at MIT three years to figure out who wrote twelve unsigned Federalist Papers. Turns out they were written by James Madison who rarely used the word “while” but instead used “whilst,” and rarely used the word “upon” but rather “on.”
According to a 2014 article in Smithsonian.com (March 2014), Robert Leonard, director of the Institute for Forensic Linguistics at Hofstra University, has been an expert witness in 13 states and six Federal District Courts and in U.S. District Courts (including Denver). He worked on the JonBenet Ramsey case, where he eliminated John Mark Karr as the killer after Karr falsely confessed to the murder. Leonard also presented evidence in cases like that of Christopher Coleman, who was arrested in 2009 for murdering his family in Waterloo, Illinois.
Leonard testified that Coleman’s writing style matched threats he had spray-painted at his family’s home. Coleman was convicted and is serving a life sentence.
Side note: While working on his undergraduate degree at Columbia University, Leonard sang in the rock ‘n roll band Sha Na Na and performed at Woodstock.
Interestingly, it was forensics linguistics in 2013 that outed an internationally famous author who also writes mysteries under a pen name. The test, conducted by Patrick Juola, a Duquesne University computer scientist, examined sequences of tens of thousands of adjacent words, while another zeroed in on sequences of characters. A third test tallied the most common words, while a fourth examined the author’s preferences for long or short words. The results revealed a linguistic fingerprint—or in other words, the author’s stylistic quirks.
This particular author is the ninth best-selling fiction author of all time (estimated 500 million copies sold). Writing under a pen name, this author has also written four acclaimed mystery novels: The Cuckoo’s Calling, Career of Evil, The Silkworm and the newest, Lethal White, all which feature private detective Cormoran Strike.
Who is this famous author of four acclaimed mystery novels? The forensic linguistic tests revealed that it was Robert Galbraith, better known by her real name—J.K. Rowling—author of the Harry Potter series.
After consulting with Peter Millican, an Oxford University linguist, and receiving a concurring opinion, England’s Sunday Times confronted Rowling, who confessed.
Juola said in his computer analysis some of the giveaways were Rowling’s fondness for Latin quotes and her distinctly feminine way of describing women’s clothing.
When it became public that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, her mystery novel rose from 4,709th in position on the Amazon sales chart to number one.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.