How does Linguistics shape a Criminal Investigation?

Dear LINGUIST readers,

This week, following our Fund Drive theme of “Linguistics on the Silver Screen”, we are highlighting another depiction of linguistics in media: the role of linguistic clues in Manhunt: Unabomber. This 2017 Discovery Channel mini-series depicts (a somewhat fictionalized version of) the FBI investigation of the Unabomber, an American domestic terrorist who mailed a series of package bombs to victims across the United States between 1978 and 1995. Due to his care in leaving virtually no forensic evidence, the Unabomber proved to be difficult to identify through traditional forensic methods. Adding to that difficulty, his victims appeared to be selected at random, his mail bombs were sent anonymously in nondescript packages and there was only one known sighting in 17 years.  In his manifesto, the Unabomber said “Some scientific work has no conceivable relation to the welfare of the human race… comparative linguistics, for example” (Industrial Society and its Future, paragraph 88). Ironically, it was linguistics that led to the identification and arrest of the Unabomber, and the story is a truly fascinating one.

If you haven’t seen this series yet, this is your official spoiler warning for the rest of this post! And although the outcome of the case may be historical fact, we recommend watching the series and enjoying the gripping twists and turns in the story of the investigation.

“What if there’s a wudder in there?”

The series begins with the introduction of James Fitzgerald, a real life criminal profiler who contributed to the case. Although some with knowledge of the true events claim “Fitz” is a composite character representing several investigators, he is nonetheless a compelling protagonist. Fresh out of FBI Academy, Fitz is a new criminal profiler chosen to take part in the FBI’s UNABOM investigation. Quickly becoming frustrated with the FBI’s adherence to unlikely profiles based on little evidence, he suggests developing a fresh profile of the killer, one derived from careful reading of the Unabomber’s own letters and manifesto. He thinks the Unabomber is much more intelligent than the FBI had accounted for, and ultimately an ideological terrorist, not a serial killer.

“Is it Corrections, or Errata?”

The first inkling of linguistics as a relevant avenue of investigation comes to Fitz when he is mocked by his teammates for his pronunciation of the word water, or as he says, wudder, with his Philadelphia accent. Fitz has a revelation–what if there’s a wudder in the manifesto, some clue in the language as to the author’s origins? He invites a team of experts in all the topics relevant to the manifesto, including linguist Natalie Rogers. While the other academics contribute little, Rogers politely asks questions about the language in the text: does it say Corrections or Errata? It turns out to be an important distinction: the format of the manifesto matches the accepted format for dissertations written between 1967 and 1972. The first major clue: the Unabomber has a PhD. Rogers then tells Fitz about idiolect, the concept of linguistic variation at an individual level, or as Fitz calls it, a “linguistic fingerprint”. He is immediately taken by the idea, and it begins to shape his team’s investigation going forward.

Through this idea, clues start to reveal themselves: the Unabomber spells some words in unusual ways, which turn out to match an old style guide for the Chicago Tribune, indicating that he probably read that newspaper diligently at some point between 1949 and 1954. He uses outdated and offensive terminology for women and minorities, indicating his age as older than previously thought, probably at least 50. He’s meticulous, a perfectionist; he writes about his sophisticated philosophical ideas in a somewhat academic register. The picture painted by these clues looks quite different from the FBI’s original profile.

However, word choice and spelling aren’t the only tools at Fitz’s disposal. While grabbing dinner with Rogers, she humorously uses a nacho platter as a visual aid for explanation of the linguistic case for the Slavic homeland. She explains that linguists looked not only for the words the daughter languages had, but the ones they didn’t have. This inspires Fitz to look toward discourse analysis of the manifesto, and the concepts and topics not mentioned by the Unabomber.

Linguists can make a visual aid out of anything.

More clues and theories roll in: he doesn’t mention a family, or friends, and is likely very isolated. He doesn’t appear to have a phone, and doesn’t seem to know about computers, pop culture, or modern tech companies. Maybe, Fitz reasons, he’s been isolated for quite some time.

Eventually, the big break in the case does come from language: when the Unabomber demands his manifesto be published on a national scale, Fitz convinces his boss, who convinces Janet Reno, that agreeing to the demand might result in someone recognizing the language in the document. Sure enough, David Kaczynski comes across the manifesto, recognizes the style and content, and is immediately concerned that his brother, Ted Kaczynski, may be the Unabomber. After hearing Fitz’s working profile, David is stunned by the close resemblance. This convinces him to share more evidence and give up his Ted’s location.

Finally, Fitz is able to help the team secure a warrant to search Kaczynski’s cabin, based on the close linguistic resemblance between the killer’s letters and Kaczynski’s letters to his brother. Language proves to be the tool that provides not only investigative leads, but also probable cause.

Where is the Unabomber’s “homeland”?

Although the account presented in Manhunt: Unabomber is fictionalized, this case is well known to be one that brought forensic linguistic analysis into higher regard. The series depicts the real value of author identification, dialectology, discourse analysis, and corpus analysis, as these techniques conspired to create a valuable and accurate criminal profile of the Unabomber.

Furthermore, even within the bounds of fiction, the story depicts a reality many linguists experience daily: the fascinating applications of linguistic analysis, and the frequent, frustrating resistance from those outside the field. Natalie Rogers is mocked by the other academics even when her insight proves useful to the investigation; Fitz is told repeatedly that language isn’t real evidence, and is repeatedly prevented from following what are truly real leads, with real investigative value. As a linguist, it is definitely a pleasure to watch Fitz and Rogers succeed and eventually lead the case to its close–even if, at the end of the story, they still don’t get the credit they deserve.

One qualm that a member of our staff had was how the Philadelphia accent was depicted in the movie. As a Philadelphian herself, she found issue with how the actor pronounced wudder, as well as the lack of common idiosyncrasies present in the Philadelphian dialect. While the film highlighted idiolects and their ability to reveal aspects of a person’s history, Fitz was played by an Australian actor and, at times, his native idiolect came through. Inadvertently, the show once again depicts how one’s own language can reveal more than initially meets the ears.

Have you seen Manhunt: Unabomber? If so, tell us in the comments what you thought! If not, we highly recommend watching the tale unfold for yourself. For more analysis of linguistics in pop culture, check out last week’s post about Arrival. And don’t forget to head over to our Fund Drive homepage to read more about us and donate TODAY. The LINGUIST List needs your help!

Linguistically yours,

Clare Harshey, jobs editor
on behalf of the LINGUIST List Team

EDIT: Although not mentioned in the post above, one clue used to secure the search warrant was the Unabomber’s inversion of the popular idiom: “you can’t eat your cake and have it too”. LINGUIST List reader Anna Finzel reached out to let us know that this is actually an inversion typically used in Nigerian English! Upon investigation, we found that the idiom is inverted in several other languages as well. So it should be noted that forensic linguistics, wielded recklessly, could also have hurt this investigation. In this case, if that clue had been relied on too strongly, it could have led the team to incorrectly narrow the suspect pool to Nigerian English speakers or other immigrant communities. Thanks, Anna, for sharing this important point!

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