Forensic linguistic takes up where Miss Marple
The German Tribune, 27. Jg., No. 1327, 19.06.1988
Agatha Christie’s character, Miss Marple, solved the trickiest
crimes with a mixture of a knowledge of human nature and
powers of deduction.
Criminologists today would fail miserably using these qualities
alone. The indispensable tools of a criminologist now are
Computers and highly sensitive medical, chemical and technical
But still criminal investigators do not use all the scientific
possibilities available to identify the writers of anonymous
letters through textual examination, according to Raimund
Drommel, 42, a cologne language expert.
He teaches at the Universities of Cologne and Siegen and,
since 1973, has spent a lot of time working on textual examination
and what is known as forensic linguistics.
But unlike other disciplines forensic linguistics ekes
out a miserable existence in the crime technology world.
Although hardly a day passes in which a department store
does not get an anonymous threat or the owner of the company
is not block mailed, there is usually far too much delay
in using all available analytical methods.
Some years ago a local police chief discovered to his cost
that no-one is immune from anonymous accusations.
Over several months, the Land interior ministry and the
public prosecutor were inundated with anonymous letters
abusing the police chief.
Investigators managed to reduce the number of suspects
to a few, but then progressed stopped.
Until they turned to Herr Drommel. His name came up because
he had written an article for a specialist magazine.
Drommel got to work on examples of the suspects’ writing,
pored over the meagre literature at the beginning of the
1970’s on modern linguistics and came upon a case that was
decisive in rehabilitating the police chief and in establishing
the identity of the letter writer.
Another case: in October 1952, Dick Helander, a theology
professor at Strängnäs in Sweden, was elected bishop. But
beforehand, many of the diocesan electors received anonymous
letters promoting the cause of Helander and criticising
Two language researchers were called in. They analysed
the texts of the letters, comparing them for style, use
of words, sentence construction and other criteria with
documents written by Bishop Helander – and unmasked him
as the author. He was dismissed.
Drommel followed up similar “linguistic finger-prints,”
tracking down the anonymous author of the letters against
the German police chief. It was one of his own officials.
As a police officer the official had got accustomed to
using certain expressions in speech and in his writing,
which eventually found their way into his private correspondence.
Examination of the written word, which the police and the
court have used for some time, is not sufficient to protect
the innocent and find out the guilty, according to Raimund
The writer and author of a text are not necessary the same
person. The victim of a crime can be forced to write a letter,
that would exonerate the criminal.
Only a systematic comparison of such a letter with other
writings of the person concerned can show that this is what
This occurred in the case of a young girl who was kidnapped
near Cologne. Shortly before her violent death she wrote
two letters, in which the two main suspects were exonerated
– they are now on trial before the Bonn district court.
Drommel discovered that the woman was forced to write the
One of many factors that led to this conclusion was that
on examining 600,000 words in her private correspondence
one certain word did not appear once. One of the present
accused, however, used this expression regularly.
Drommel believes that it is imperative to make better use
than has been done until now of language analysis in a time
of personal computers. More and more black-mail letters
are produced on computers.
A slipped A on an old typewriter no longer reveals the
identity of a wrongdoer, as it did in Miss Marple’s day.