Forensic Linguistics as Dialogue Research

it wasn't me i am innocent

Anyone watching the special on CBS about the JonBenet Ramsey case? I saw part of it, and to be honest, what caught my attention most as a writer was the forensic linguistic part. In the section I saw, they identified a line of testimony as a lie because the wording was too extreme – too much of a sales pitch. That made me think that forensic linguistics could be useful dialogue research.

Areas of Forensic Linguistics That Relate to Dialogue

Now, maybe, you’re an expert, but I’ve never heard of forensic linguistics before. So I Googled it. According to wikipedia. it’s applying linguistics to trials, crimes, etc. (blah blah blah). I could’ve guessed that much from context clues.

Don’t worry – “The Forensic Text Types” section was more useful, especially relating to writing and dialogue.

Emergency Calls

Since 9-1-1 calls are usually intense, time-sensitive situations, the types of things forensic linguists look for would be most useful under similar circumstances. And they’re mostly about analyzing (or revealing) the honesty or dishonesty of the caller (is the call real?).

Some signs that it may not be real include

  • delay/pauses between answers
  • sidestepping or hedging answers
  • really short answers
  • incomplete answers

Translating some of that into writing could be hard, but it could definitely useful if you need to make it seem like a character is lying. Focus on timing and willingness to give information.

Notes for Ransoms or Threats

This section makes me think of motivation. Only this has the challenge of figuring out the motivation of characters you’ve never met.

It seems that combined with the actual message, when a ransom note was written gives a pretty big clue about the motivation of the person writing it as well as the potential honesty. Which makes a lot of sense but isn’t something I would have thought of.

For example, if they wrote “the child is safe” before they ever took the child, that’s not trustworthy. Sure, they might’ve planned for the child to be safe, but who knows if the kidnapping went as planned? It’s an interesting thought-process to apply.

Another aspect that came up in the JonBenet case was the idea that the ransom note could have a mix of motivations because multiple people were writing it. In that case (according to the theory promoted on the show), a lie got more complicated because two many people were involved in planning it.

But even if the note was intended as a true ransom, having co-criminals with different priorities could result in a mixed impression for the police.

Suicide notes, death row statements, and social media are also listed as specific texts studied; however, at a glance, they appear less applicable without having very specific moments in the plot or doing further research.

That’s kind of what I’m afraid of, actually. As much as this topic seems intriguing, it also seems like the sort of topic that could take a lot of sifting through before you find the kernel of information that you can use. The only problem is I don’t know that for sure – it could be a goldmine of strategies and techniques for figuring out if someone is lying. Or other tidbits that could be really handy for writing dialogue that conveys a certain impression.

That leaves me feeling really conflicted. Do I take the risk, or do I make use of this much and move on. Is it Pandora’s box or a pirate’s treasure chest? If anyone decides to research this further, I’d love to know the answer.

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