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Forensic linguistics vs handwriting of crime suspects

[By Humphrey M Kapau]

Forensic linguistics (also popularly known as legal linguistics) has proven to be a very useful field of language in combating crime by law enforcement agencies such as DEC and the FBI.

And when it comes to analysing the handwriting of crime suspects, an area of forensic linguistics known as ‘forensic stylistics’ deserves a gold medal in this regard. By definition, forensic stylistics is an expanse of forensic linguistics concerned with the “examination of style in language for the purpose of resolving litigated questions relating to disputed authorship or meaning. Forensic stylistics has been presented as evidence in a wide range of legal cases, mostly concerned with the identity of the author of the document” (Smith and Shuy,2002:17).

For example, when investigators reached a dead end to an investigation involving a serial killer nicknamed the ‘Unabomber’ (the FBI shorthand for ‘University and airline bomber’), they turned to forensic linguists to help analyse pieces of handwriting titled ‘Industrial Society and Its Future’ sent by the suspect to ‘New York Times’ and ‘Washington Post’. The task of forensic linguists was to compare and analyse the handwritten notes for linguistic traces that could help identify the author of the writings. The analysis led to the eventual arrest of the Unabomber identified as Ted Kaczynski, a disgruntled former professor of mathematics.

Also known as ‘language by the hand’, handwriting is the means by which humans compose meaning using a system of symbols (that is, letters of the alphabet, punctuations and spaces) by hand (Surbhi and Choudhary,2018). It is subdivided into three basic styles, notably, cursive (connected letters), pre-cursive (semi-connected letters) and print handwriting (stand-alone letters) styles. The term ‘handwriting’ also extends to mean a form of hand-writing peculiar to an individual (Koppenhaver,1992). People who study handwriting are called graphologists while the field is known as graphology (Crystal,1991).

Drawing from published data from some of the world’s top forensic linguists, some of whom have lectured at the FBI Academy (e.g. Smith and Shuy,2002), today’s article focuses on two things: firstly, the basic principles of handwriting that inform stylistic individuality in handwriting; and secondly, the common forensic stylistic markers in our handwritings that can offer forensic investigators further insights about a given case.

Basic principles about handwriting individuality

To begin with, unknown to most people, our overall style of handwriting is like our fingerprints – no matter how identical two pieces of handwriting can be, no two people can write exactly the same way. Only you can write like you (Koppenhaver,1992). The reason is that many writing habits are subconscious and cannot be changed by the writer. No one can replicate all of the intricate subconscious writing habits of another. You can try to write almost the same way as the other person but all what forensic linguists will do is to make you create a lot of writing samples and your true colours will come out. In the case of those attempting to run away from their own writing, extended sample writing also exposes their subconscious writing habits and such details are what tie them to their writings (Smith and Shuy,2002).

The other funny fact about handwriting is that even if only you can write like you, you still cannot exactly forge your own handwriting because no man has ever managed to cheat himself in history. It is impossible to exactly forge your own handwriting because each time we put pen to paper, we use different levels of energy and force which is never the same when we repeat the action after a break, no matter the simulation. This is why when attempting to forge, we do so slowly in order to try to replicate the little details of how we made the letters, ink marks and so forth. Owing to this, in forensic linguistics, forging a writing is not called ‘writing’ but termed ‘drawing’ because it is a delicate imitation of a blueprint (Koppenhaver,1992).

To sum up the principles that inform handwriting individuality, it is worth noting that our handwritings change over the course of our lifetime. You may claim your handwriting has not changed but it actually has. The change is natural due to factors such as age and changes in motor skills. However, despite one’s handwriting changing over the years, certain unconscious writing habits of the writer remain unchanged. Such is what handwriting experts look for when comparing notes of, say, a serial killer who has escaped the wrath of the law for years and whose only link to the crime is a note left years back when the crime happened.

Forensic stylistic markers in handwritings

The first stylistic marker in handwriting is that of marginal space (Surbhi and Choudhary,2018). Although all writers leave marginal space in all four sides of the paper, the amount of margin left differs from one writer to the other thus forming varying degrees of individuality. People who talk a lot or write a lot may leave small margin so as to accommodate more information on paper.

On the other hand, those who talk less may decide to leave big margins because they have less to talk about. By analysing a writer’s adherence to or flouting of conversational maxims in writing, Johnson and Coulthard (2007) note that investigators can create assumptions such as the suspect being an introvert or extrovert, a pastor, teacher or of military background (e.g. pastors and teachers talk a lot while soldiers tend to be reserved and choosy in word selection).

Secondly, paragraph formation can provide a lot of forensic linguistic data to investigators. Different writers begin paragraphs differently – others form paragraphs while others do not do so. Surbhi and Choudhary (2018:2) observe that even “the location and length of paragraphs differ between two writers.”

All things equal, we all begin our paragraphs calmly and this shows on paper through minimal or no traces of disturbance in ink. However, if the writer places the pen on the paper just when they were about to start writing a paragraph, the lines will have blunt initial strokes (Koppenhaver,1992). This could mean disturbance prior to the writing process, probably pointing to something having disturbed the person. If nothing is written after that, the assumption could be that something made them abandon the idea of writing against their will. Should the writer stop the pen before lifting it from the paper, the writer will leave a blunt ending on the words such could entail distraction and the writer left in a hurry.

Thirdly, during the formation of paragraphs, the amount of pressure that a writer uses to push and pull the pen through the strokes of writing will be seen in the variations of the pressure patterns on the writing surface. Most people create heavier strokes when the pen is descending and lighter strokes when the pen is being pushed away from the writer. This knowledge is helpful in determining the position of the writer in relation to the orientation of how the written note was found at the crime scene. By observing the pressure patterns on a piece of writing, it is possible to know where the writer was, whether he was standing, seated or leaning.

The pressure patterns in writing can also help ascertain the stress levels, mood and urgency in the writer at the time he/she was writing. For example, if a murder victim writes hurriedly, they are likely to produce scribbled and disoriented handwriting because they were in panic mode (Johnson and Coulthard,2007).

Fourthly, substance abuse affects handwriting – be it in paragraphs or as individual words. With this knowledge, forensic experts can determine the mental state of the suspect or victim to ascertain if it was indeed a homicide or suicide. In such cases, the victim or suspect’s substance-use history might be needed in order to ascertain handwriting authorship (Koppenhaver,1992).

Lastly, although the grammar of a particular language is standardised, linguistic mannerisms differ from one writer to the other. Forensic linguists compare written notes on the basis of linguistic mannerisms like frequent use of particular words or phrases when writing; use of tense and prepositions; writer’s bullet styling when writing using a pen or other instrument; his/her use of abbreviations and contractions (e.g. frequent use of ‘OK’ instead of ‘okay’; or ‘can’t’ instead of ‘cannot’); slang; and level of adherence to punctuation. The aforementioned linguistic mannerisms can, for example, help investigators have an idea about the suspect’s education background, academic qualifications, religious orientation and general behaviour (Smith and Shuy,2002).

Next Friday, I will take you to African linguistics. Did you know that African languages are classified into four language families and that Bantu languages are a part of one of the families?

The author is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at UNZA. Contact: hmksettings@rocketmail.com; WhatsApp: +260 956 315380.

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