‘I was changing a nappy when call for help came’

Dr Claire Hardaker.
Dr Claire Hardaker.

A Lancaster University linguistics lecturer has used her expertise to give an insight into the background of an Islamist State militant connected with the death of a US journalist. Guardian reporter Gayle Rouncivell spoke to Dr Claire Hardaker about her unexpected popularity within the national media.

Trained in linguistics and specialising in aggression, deception and manipulation, Dr Claire Hardaker’s knowledge of the English language has proved crucial at a national level.

James Foley.

James Foley.

Since news broke of the death of US journalist James Foley last week, the linguistics and English language lecturer’s expertise has been used across the British media.

The 33-year-old has appeared on ITV’s This Morning, Sky News, BBC News and Newsnight, as well as on many radio stations, discussing the use of written and verbal language used by Mr Foley’s captors.

British and US security services have been trying to identify the Islamic State (Isis) militant with a British accent who appeared in a video of the apparent beheading of Mr Foley.

The UK foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said intelligence agencies were trying to unmask the fluent English-speaking militant in the propaganda footage.

War-torn Syria.

War-torn Syria.

The tape shows a masked Islamist State (IS) fighter beheading a kneeling man dressed in an orange jumpsuit who is purported to be Mr Foley, a photojournalist who went missing in Syria in 2012.

The masked executioner spoke in English, and said the slaying came in response to the air strikes ordered by US president Barack Obama against IS earlier this month.

Dr Hardaker studied the clip and said the man’s vowels marked him out as probably from the south east of England, but most likely from London. She said his pronunciation of the word ‘muslims’ helped pin down a more exact location. She said: “We’re definitely looking at a British accent, from the south and probably from London, Kent or Essex. He does something interesting when he says ‘Muslims’. You typically get ‘Muzlims’ but he says something closer to ‘Musslims’.”

An email sent to the family of Mr Foley by his captors also backs up Dr Hardaker’s theory that at least one of his captors was English.

From this, Dr Hardaker was able to determine the likely type of equipment and software used, as well as more about the background of the writer.

She said: “There are lots of clues if you know what you are looking for.

“This is someone using the words of an educated person, despite making typos.

“You can have someone who is very smart but cannot spell. To me it looks very like a native speaker of English. I think they are looking at someone quite intelligent.

“Some of the spelling mistakes are very common in native speakers.”

Dr Hardaker added that the captor appeared to have a strong grasp of linguistic creativity.

She said: “In a non-native speaker, one of the last levels in language learning is the level of creativity or humour. It would be very unusual to find the use of creative metaphors in a non-native speaker.” There were a number of other grammatical indicators to suggest that Mr Foley’s captor – or whoever wrote the letter – was British.

He appears to have mastered the possessive form, referring to the “lion’s den” which Mr Foley had entered, and has a strong grasp of dependent clauses linking complex sentences – such as when he points out that they “did not interfere in your country ... despite our capacity to do so”.

Dr Hardaker said while it was not possible to pinpoint an exact location from the written words, some of the constructions might provide indications of his class.

In the email, the author says: “You and your citizens will pay the price of your bombings! The first of which being the blood of the American citizen, James Foley!”

Dr Hardaker said that although grammatically incorrect, the use of the construction “the first of which being” was relatively common in spoken English and more indicative of a British working class writer.

Dr Hardaker’s sudden fame came as something of a surprise to her.

The mum-of-one said: “I was actually changing a nappy when [London radio station] LBC rang to ask me to watch the video.

“Linguistics can tell you a lot about someone’s age and background and education.

“Experts can pin down whereabouts in London the accent is from, the type of education and social class.

“We can get clues but you can’t just hang on to them – it’s about building up a whole picture of all the clues.”

Originally from Bradford, Dr Hardaker undertook her Masters and PhD at Lancaster University, and has now settled in the area with her partner John and seven-month-old son Brandon.

She now lectures in linguistics and English language.

Her interest in online linguistics stemmed from a use of internet forums as a teenager.

She said: “When I started my PhD in 2007 no one really knew about online trolls.People thought I was wasting my time.

“But in about 2010 there was a bit of a watershed moment and people started to realise it was a big deal.

“I had no concept at the time that it would be anything other than something I was interested in and that it would turn into such a massive deal.”

Dr Hardaker has since assisted undercover police on a project on online grooming and has studied online rape and death threats.