Friday, October 02, 2009

Poison pens and private eyes

Forensic linguistics is rapidly becoming my favourite thing in the world: what better way to combine a love of language and The Wire in one job? So, this story on the BBC news website about abusive letters being sent to religious and political figures and covered in this week's Crimewatch is very exciting.

Apparently, a total of 57 abusive, racist and sexually graphic letters have been sent to various religious and political figures from the Southampton & Portsmouth area, and forensic linguist Tim Grant from Aston University's Centre For Forensic Linguistics has been called in to look at who the sender/s might be.

The article raises a number of interesting questions to do with language, some of them about gender and language use. While the linguist, Deborah Cameron lays into the generalised "myths" of clear differences between male and female language use in conversation, Tim Grant seems to suggest that men and women often tend to have distinctive patterns of written language:

He said: "One of the things that were striking about the letters was the heavy use of expressive adjectives, which is more typical of women than men.

"You could say women use more adjectives because they can be more socially evaluative but we don't look at why rather than how the two different groups behave.

"We just know that's the case because we read a lot of letters and make statistical correlations. The words (in the letters) used were things like 'squalor', 'dirty' and some sexual adjectives which were suggestive of women's writing.

"Another thing we know is that women tend to use fewer first person pronouns, such as 'I'."

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