Syracuse University Magazine

Identifying Linguistic Fingerprints

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Tej Bhatia is not exactly the cloak-and-dagger type, but the affable, slightly built professor, with a mop of brown hair and thick moustache, is proof that appearances are deceiving. Which is probably a good thing, considering his line of work. A linguistics professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), Bhatia is a faculty fellow in the college’s Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute (FNSSI). “Tej’s work brings together several key disciplines, including psychology, linguistics, and pattern recognition,” says James T. Spencer, Meredith Professor of Chemistry and executive director of FNSSI. “He sets high standards of excellence that open up new multidisciplinary dimensions of the field.”

To be sure, the FNSSI work of Bhatia—who also oversees A&S’s South Asian Languages Program—marks the culmination of years of study in practically all branches of linguistics. “The conscious and unconscious dimensions of linguistic knowledge are central to understanding the workings of the traumatic mind,” says Bhatia, who is invited to work on cases involving intercepted cell phone conversations, money laundering, and people seeking political asylum. “This knowledge may be applied to forensic linguistics, forensic psychiatrics, and computational linguistics.”

One of Bhatia’s projects involves biometric forensic psychiatrics speech—a rapidly growing field drawing on forensic linguistics and forensic psychiatrics. “This project bridges the gap between the study of the language of sentimentality, identity, and trauma issues by carrying out theoretical and applied research,” says Bhatia, who is collaborating with James Knoll, professor of psychiatry and director of forensic psychiatrics at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

As an example of biometric forensic psychiatrics speech, Bhatia cites the Unabomber case in which a reclusive mathematician mailed and hand-delivered a series of sophisticated “letter bombs” in the 1980s and ’90s, killing three people and injuring two dozen more. Bhatia says it was linguistic analysis—the study of word choice and other linguistic patterns in the suspect’s writings—that ultimately led the FBI to the Unabomber. “While forensic psychiatrics provides insight into the dark side of mental health, it has not focused on language to identify the ‘linguistic fingerprints’ left by individuals prone to violence or trauma,” says Bhatia, vice president and president-elect of the International Association for World Englishes. “Forensic linguistics can complement forensic science, as well as be the only tool with which to solve forensic problems, as in the case of the Unabomber.”

Bhatia is also helping to develop the Communicated Threat Assessment Multilingual Database (CTAMD), a one-of-a-kind repository of “threatening” documents that has implications for intelligence operations. “CTAMD will provide the infrastructure needed to achieve both theoretical and applied goals in forensic biometrics, related to the use of language,” says Bhatia, who, along with fellow A&S professor William C. Ritchie, is editor-in-chief of Brill Research Perspectives in Multilingualism and Second Language Acquisition (Brill, 2015). “It’s been my lifelong ambition to build such a repository, providing new ways to study the visual and verbal markers of deception and violence from the writings of, interviews with, and court documents of master criminals.” —Rob Enslin