06 September 2017 | Chi Luu| JSTOR
“Have you heard the story of the man who was killed by the definite article? That may sound like the beginning of a linguistics joke, but sad to say, it actually happened.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” as the old adage goes. When battling bullies, we may take heart in this childhood rhyme, but the truth is, language can be more dangerous than we often assume—it can kill.
In later life, we grow more familiar with another, darker side of language, some flavor of “anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence against you.” There’s a reason there’s a right to silence in many jurisdictions, given how loosely the law, often oblivious to the pitfalls of forensic linguistics, can interpret language as evidence.
One cold January morning in 1953, Derek Bentley, a nineteen-year-old, barely literate youth in the wrong place with the wrong words, was hanged for a murder he did not commit. During an attempted burglary a couple of months earlier, a policeman had been fatally shot by Bentley’s sixteen-year-old friend Christopher Craig, a minor who legally could not be sentenced to death. Derek Bentley, who never held the gun, was held to blame for the crime.
The evidence hinged upon an ambiguous sentence. No one could agree on what it meant. When the police demanded Craig hand over the gun, Bentley was said to have called out “Let him have it, Chris!” after which Craig shot and killed a policeman. Did these words mean, literally, “give him the gun” or, indirectly, “shoot him”? Was Bentley a party to murder, as the prosecution would have it, by inciting Craig to kill?
Indirect speech can have a profoundly direct effect on listeners. Most recently, former FBI director James Comey stated he took Trump’s statement “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go” as an obvious directive. In his testimony, Comey referenced one of history’s most famous examples of a fatally effective indirect speech act, in which Henry II was said to have exasperatedly uttered “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Whereupon, four of his knights set out to assassinate the troublesome Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett.
So how could we possibly know what Bentley, who was described as “borderline feeble-minded,” meant to say? In Malcolm Coulthard’s forensic linguistic analysis of the case, two preconditions for Bentley’s guilt were laid out: it had to be proven that Bentley already knew Craig had a gun, and that he had instigated Craig to use it. According to Coulthard, the evidence that finally convinced the presiding judge and convicted Bentley was largely linguistic, based on the troubling police transcript of the statements Bentley had made.
A single word seemed to finally tip the balance: the definite article. In his statement, despite denying knowledge of any gun until Craig had used it, Derek Bentley had supposedly said “I did not know he was going to use thegun” at an earlier, crucial moment in the narrative. In summation, the judge made much of the word choice of “the gun” as opposed to “a gun,” which to him showed that Bentley had known about the gun all along and his language had given him away.
Thanks to this errant definite article, Bentley was thus considered an “unreliable witness” who did have prior knowledge of the gun and had contradicted himself by denying this later.
It took just two days for the jury to decide Bentley’s fate and about a month later he was executed without reprieve. The unfortunate case of Derek Bentley is one of Britain’s most notorious miscarriages of justice and shines a spotlight on just how fragile forensic linguistic evidence can be, and how prone it is to mistaken interpretations and manipulation by even the most well-meaning of people.
As we’ve seen, forensic linguistics can often provide the key lead in cold cases such as in the Unabomber mystery, enabling investigators to uncover much stronger corroborating evidence that can lead to a conviction as a result. But there’s a danger of things going horribly wrong when slim linguistic evidence is the only thing standing between the accused and their innocence, especially when that evidence might interpreted carelessly out of context by those inexperienced in forensic linguistic techniques, including judges, lawyers, investigators, and even so-called expert witnesses.
The popularity of police dramas has led a wide audience to believe that DNA evidence is rarely wrong. The reality is that even DNA testing can be flawed, and forensic linguistic evidence is perhaps even more precarious in what it can tell us. But the idea of linguistic fingerprints is compelling. While DNA testing is somewhat out of the average person’s reach, forensic linguistic analysis seems readily accessible.
Our native familiarity with language, along with a society’s linguistic baggage and beliefs, can often lead us to think we’re competent enough to judge the simple cause and effect of what language reveals about a person’s identity or intentions. The attraction of this kind of linguistic armchair detective work is it presents problems as safe and controlled puzzles to be solved using knowledge you apparently already have, innately. But life is not a clear-cut whodunnit and answers to mysteries are rarely so simple.