Home » Harry Bradford: Forensic Linguistic Profiling & What Your Language Reveals About You (Transcript)

Harry Bradford: Forensic Linguistic Profiling & What Your Language Reveals About You (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Harry Bradford’s TEDx Talk: Forensic Linguistic Profiling & What Your Language Reveals About You at TEDxStoke conference. 

Harry Bradford: I’ll start by saying I really do actually like the internet. Over the next 10 minutes, it’s going to seem like I really don’t.

The internet is fantastic, there’s loads of great things out there. You can communicate with friends all over the world, watch cat videos, you can learn new skills, watch cat videos, you can spread ideas, political, social ideas. If I’m honest, for me it’s predominantly cat videos. I like procrastinating a lot.

But there are some wonderful things out there, and one of the most wonderful things about the internet is the potential within each of the individual users.

A few years ago, everyday Twitter users took on the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir for her homophobic, hate inspired speech referencing Stephen Gately’s death. Here was a group of people who saw an injustice and decided to challenge it using the internet to level the playing field.

On a much larger scale in 2011, the Egyptian people used the internet to take on their own government and regardless of what happened next, the usage was twofold. First was it was a place where political and social ideas could be shared, and the second was that place was free from the government, and free from police, those ideas could propagate and grow. Without the benefit of the anonymity of the internet there wouldn’t have been the same outcome.

We’re currently living in this absolutely fantastic brand new digital age where each of us is a digital pioneer. We can challenge institutions, share new ideas, do incredible things. This is Manifest Destiny 20. But there are problems. I wouldn’t be stood here today doing this talk if there weren’t problems.

And one of those problems is the growing trend of cyber crime. Last year in England and Wales alone, there were nearly six million cases of cyber crime and that ranges from everything from identity theft and fraud, all the way to pedophilia, trafficking, terrorism. And furthermore, that number is growing exponentially year after year. In fact, one in ten of you will be affected by cyber crime in your lives. And you’re 20 times more likely to be robbed online than you are to be mugged in the street.

And these numbers are getting higher. Part of the problem with this, is the internet gives a level of anonymity that perhaps you can’t have elsewhere. All it’s going to take is a fake account, one fake email address, and you can be anybody. There are no ramifications to your actions if nobody knows it’s you.

So, with this growing threat, what is the solution? Well, I personally believe one of those solutions could be forensic linguistics. So forensic linguistics, other than sounding great on a business card, is actually a pretty simple thing. It’s an offshoot of sociolinguistics, which, again, is a complicated term for something that you all know already, which is that you learn your language from those people who are around you.

And if that’s the case, then each of your languages will be different to the person that you are sat next to. So you will speak differently to your grandparents. Your age, gender, race, sexuality, class, education, where you were born, where you were raised. It’s all going to directly affect your language, both written and spoken. \

And this is sociolinguistic variation, and we can prove this through something called corpus linguistics. Which again, technical term for something that’s not that technical. A corpus is just a big group of data, and if we analyse enough linguistic data we can start to get key phrases, key terms, key words, key terminology and find out what’s common, what’s uncommon, what’s specific to certain social groups. I’ll give you an example, and I’m going to apologize in advance to every young person watching this.

Especially to Matilda. The phrase ‘En Fleek’ is unlikely to be uttered by anybody over the age of 30. It’s even less likely to be uttered by any grey-haired person over the age of 70, unless you are particularly cool. Maybe, I don’t know. So if we have an anonymous individual using the words ‘En Fleek’ in online discourse, chances are we are dealing with either somebody under the age of 30, or a prospective TEDx talker who’s trying to find cool, hip words to say to impress his crowd. And it’s working, I can tell.

So what this leads us to is you starting to profile the language people use. And that could be other things as well. Emojis, a completely new thing that’s happened in the last few years. Some sections of society will not use those terms. And this is something called inter-author variation and this is how everyday things that affect my life, my age, my gender, my race, my sexuality, that changes how I speak and it makes me different to everybody else in this room because nobody else has lived the life I have lived, and vice versa.

It’s what makes you different to your best friend, to your brother, sister, partner, mother or father. They’re all going to be different to you, because you’ve had different lives. So your language is going to be different as well. But not just from those around you, also from an anonymous individual online.

Another thing a linguist could do is analyse that community of practice. So a community of practice, again technical term, simple thing. It’s the common linguistic practice that’s used within a community. And you’ll have encountered this every day of your lives. If you’ve ever started a new job, perhaps, there are key words, phrases, or terminology that you don’t get. Maybe your colleagues have in-jokes that you’re not a part of and you’re a bit of an outsider.

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