Pondering Idiolect and the Word Choices of a Madman

My writer-nerd-out moments occasionally come from unexpected sources.

Recently, while watching my new summer obsession Manhunt: Unabomber, I became gripped by the field of forensic linguistics and the concept of an individual’s idiolect. I watched episode three of the limited series so engrossed that I even stopped scrolling social media and crushing candy, an occurrence that only happens if what’s on the telly is riveting.

As FBI profiler Jim Fitzgerald analyzed every word of Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, the concept of an individual’s idiolect unfolded, and I began pondering how idiolect, the speech habits peculiar to a particular person, could be applied to creative writing.

In Manhunt: Unabomber, Fitzgerald zeroed in on words in Kaczynski’s writing including broad, chick, and negro as words rarely used in 1995. From these words, he was able to estimate what decade the Unabomber was born in, thus identifying an age range. Fitzgerald was also able to determine an education level and geographic region for the Unabomber due to rare alternative spellings (analyse instead of analyze, wilfully versus willfully, etc.) and phrase choices such as including a “Corrections” page rather than an “Errata” page with his madman dissertation.

With each unique word choice Kaczynski made, he might as well have been leaving his DNA all over the pages.

My first thought was to apply this concept in creating accurate characters in fiction and nonfiction work. Just as Fitzgerald flushed out Kaczynski’s profile of the Unabomber by deciphering specific words used in the notorious letters, I should flush out my own characters by choosing words indicative of the time period, region, and education level, especially when writing dialogue. Then, I realized I already did. Every time we as writers select words for our characters such as yonder, Frigidaire, or say, coolio, we are placing a time stamp on that character.

Upon further thought, I discovered that idiolects would help color the characters in my current work-in-progress, which is set in a fictionalized version of my hometown. Toward the end of episode three of Manhunt, my Paw Paw’s voice came to my mind. I could hear him saying “Purnt” instead of point and “Urnion” instead of onion. I’ve never heard these pronunciations outside of the small fishing villages that line the western coast of Mobile Bay.

Why haven’t I added this flavor into my WIP? Because I had forgotten how much idiolect, the unique words and pronunciations a person uses, matters in creative writing. If what I want to do is create authentic, relatable characters for my readers then I must make sure that every word each character utters is authentically that character.

My nerding-out over forensic linguistics and idiolects is likely to continue for a while longer, at least through five more episodes. If you’d like to join me, Manhunt: Unabomber airs on the Discovery Channel. Don’t ask me when because I DVR it, which will surely become indicative of my age when future generations decide to study the awesomeness of my idiolect through the use of forensic linguistics.

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