The lexis and grammar in suicide letters written in English
One of the uses of linguistics in the criminal setting is to confirm the veracity of suicide letters (i.e. the Monaghan case in December 2021). The purpose of this presentation is to discuss the language used in suicide letters and how these features relate to the writing environment ([attempted] suicide). The Corpus of Emotion Annotated Suicide Notes in English (GOOSH; EKBAL; BHATTACHARYYA, 2020), a corpus of 205 verified suicide letters written in English, provided the data for this study. The letters were found through manual searches in blogs, newspapers, and other online sites.
The following methodological steps were used: (i) pre-processing; (ii) basic description of the corpus; (iii) “allness” word analysis; (iv) analysis of the occurrence of the modal verb “will” and the pair “no/not”; and (v) comparison between sentences with various emotions. The corpus is made up of 31302 tokens, with 5917 pronouns, 4927 nouns, and 4734 verbs.
The allness words are usually present in suicide notes (OSGOOD; WALKER, 1959). We did a search with the following terms: everyone, every day, everybody, nobody, no one, never, always, completely, forever, perfectly, and all. In total, they appear 608 times in the corpus; thus they represent a small percentage of the corpus.
Through a concordance analysis of “will”, this word was functioning primarily as a future marker, which was curious, since a suicide letter announces the end of life. The use of this modal was related to the letter author foreseeing other people’s lives without them or speculating how the after-life may be.
Although “no” and “not” did not appear in the most frequent words, we sought to look at their contexts in the corpus because our hypothesis was that they were employed to introduce absence or discontent. Our hypothesis was confirmed by the data. The word “not” referred to the author’s displeasure. An example of it would be ” I can not forgive the president” because the author is telling how disappointed they were with a certain person. The word “no” had surprisingly two basic meanings: expressing the author’s wrath, and proposing a solution that would be advantageous to others. An instance of the latter use is ”you will be happy, no more burden for you” as if the author’s death would provide benefits for the addressee(s) of the letter.
The corpus is annotated with emotions. We compared sentences of opposite emotions (hopefulness and hopelessness) through cosine similarity and it yielded a score of 0.69, meaning that they are quite similar. On the other hand, sentences labeled with complementary emotions (love and happiness) got a 0.44 score, that is, they are not as similar as opposite emotion sentences.
We presented potential linguistic items that can be applied to investigating the veracity of suicide letters. The description of the language used in suicide letters has the potential to aid linguists in classifying letters as true or false and in having a description of such a peculiar textual genre.