Monday, 4 November 2013

Interesting uses for linguistics 1

In the book '48 hours' by J Jackson Bentley (a fairly crappy crime thriller), forensic corpus linguistics turned up. In the book, a woman is kidnapped and her kidnappers make her send a videoed message to her boyfriend. She's a smart cookie so she gives lots of coded information about where she's being held in the message, including the word 'print'. The police try to find out what she might mean by this. They do that by running the word through a database to see what words 'print' occurs with most often.
“Luke again,” the speaker chirped. The computer is showing that the word ‘print’ can be associated with the word ‘press’ in the next sentence, as in ‘printing press’. This could be code for Dee telling us that the industrial unit houses a printing press.”
There's a good deal of suspension of disbelief required to get through this book, but this is a real thing. It's called 'collocation': when a word tends to co-occur with another one with greater than chance frequency.

If you look at a corpus (collection of texts) like the British National Corpus, you can very easily make it tell you this stuff (I'm no corpus linguist and even I can do it). Here's a screenshot of what happens if you look for the words that most frequently occur immediately after the word 'print' or one of its derivatives (such as 'printing'). The photo's a bit small but 'press' is there on the list, in eighth most common position (if I've worked the search terms right), after things like 'characters', 'material' and so on. I suppose, if you were looking for a clue to a place, 'press' would be the first one to give you anything to go on.

You can click on the words and find out what the context is, just in case there's some false results or you want more detail or whatever, and you get this:

That shows you the type of writing it was found in, and gives you the bit of sentence either side so that you can understand the phrase in context. I'm not really au fait with police techniques, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they do use this kind of method when it's appropriate. There are such people as forensic linguists who work closely with the police, whose job is often to determine if a particular person is the author or a document.

Spoiler alert: 
So they located a nearby printing press and, after much showdown, rescued 'the girls', as the two adult hostages were patronisingly referred to throughout. 

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