Bethany Dumas

University of Tennessee


Voice Identification and Authorship Attribution Issues in the American South

Southern speech patterns and perceptions of southern speech patterns play an important role in social relations. Recent documentation can be found in such works as Soukup 2000 and Hazen 2002 and also in much fiction and many films. Southern speech patterns and perceptions of southern speech patterns also play an important role in judicial process. Facts or perceptions about southern speech play a role in many legal cases, both before and during trial. In some cases, linguists are involved as consultants and/or expert witnesses (Shuy 1996, Shuy 1998). Examples of case types include those involving voice identification (Ash 1988, Labov 1988, Dumas 1990), authorship attribution (Foster 2000,) accuracy of the transcript of an audio recording, lexical interpretation, and grammatical patterns (Labov 1988, Shuy 1996, Dumas 2000). In this paper, I shall present brief descriptions of the use of linguistic analysis in a series of court cases involving voice identification and authorship attribution. I shall also summarize ways in which linguistic analysis has been used or can be used in other types of cases.

In one criminal case a defendant accused of felonious selling of cocaine to an undercover agent on the basis of surreptitiously made audio recordings of unambiguous transactions denied being the person speaking on the tape. In another criminal case, a linguist was asked by counsel for the defendant to compare videotape samples of his voice with audio recordings of telephone calls ostensibly made by someone else. Defendant, as he eventually confessed, had faked his own death by murdering a friend (by setting his automobile on fire). He then telephoned family members, pretending to be a lawyer representing the "dead" defendant. Counsel for the defendant was certain that his client was guilty, and he was seeking a guilty plea so that his client would receive a life sentence rather than the death penalty. A family member recognized the defendant's voice and alerted police. (Dumas 1990).

In a third case a linguist provided an analysis in a murder case in which the linguistic issue involved the authorship of a putative flight note in which the putative author announced her planned departure with a lover. It was reported to have been written by a woman who otherwise appeared to have been a murder victim (the body has never been found). All evidence, including the putative flight note, suggested that a jealous husband wrote the note and murdered his wife. The linguistic analysis involved comparison of a handwritten note known to have been written by the woman, and a brief typed note (the flight note). The accused husband eventually confessed to having killed the woman.

Dumas, Bethany K. 1990. Voice Identification in a Criminal Law Context. American Speech 65.4:341-348.
Dumas, Bethany K. 2000. Dialect Variation and Legal Process. American Speech 75.3: 267-270.
Hazen, Kirk. 2002. Identity and Language Variation in a Rural Community. Language 78.3:240-257.
Shuy, Roger W. 1993. Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language Evidence in the Courtroom. Oxford, UK; Cambridge,
    USA, Blackwell.
Shuy, Roger W. 1998. The Language of Confession, Interrogation, and Deception. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Soukup, Barbara. 2000. "Y'all come back now, y'hear!?": Language attitudes in the United States towards Southern American
    English." MA thesis, University of Vienna, May.